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Monday March 2nd 2015

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Free Speech Victory at East Carolina University

Adam Kissel, The FIRE

In a victory for freedom of the press, East Carolina University (ECU) has agreed to pay former student newspaper advisor Paul Isom $31,200 after firing him because the newspaper printed photos of a streaker. FIRE and groups including the Student Press Law Center had helped Isom defend free speech on campus.

As FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley commented to the North Carolina press, “It’s been obvious from the beginning that East Carolina University fired Isom because of the photos, and the university has failed to provide the public with a scrap of evidence to the contrary. It’s unfortunate that the taxpayers of North Carolina have had to pay more than $30,000 to help ECU paper over its violations of the First Amendment.”

Isom’s ordeal began on November 8, 2011, when independent student newspaper The East Carolinian published uncensored photos (warning: nudity) of a streaker at an East Carolina University football game. According to East Carolinian Editor in Chief Caitlin Hale, ECU Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy said on November 8 that Hale would be “facing consequences” for her decision to run the unedited photos. In a November 9 article in local newspaper The Daily Reflector, Hardy said that ECU “does not support” the decision to publish the photos and that “with the freedom of the press comes a certain level of responsibility about what is appropriate.” In the same article, Isom correctly stated that as a state employee, he “cannot legally interfere with decisions made by the student staff” and “would be guilty of prior review if I did that.”

On January 4, 2012, ECU fired Isom, citing a desire to take The East Carolinian in a “different direction.” To date, ECU has failed to provide the public with any evidence that this desire goes beyond ECU’s apparent hope to squelch the newspaper’s First Amendment rights in the future.

FIRE wrote ECU on January 6 explaining that Isom was correct and that neither he nor ECU could restrict the content of The East Carolinian as ECU evidently desired. FIRE informed ECU that it had violated the First Amendment by firing Isom in retaliation for the newspaper’s editorial decision. ECU responded on January 30, hiding behind the argument that the controversy was a “personnel matter.” ECU also insinuated that it had negative information about Isom, but it has never given the public a scrap of such evidence.

On April 20, Isom and ECU issued a joint statement announcing a settlement in which Isom will receive $31,200, corresponding to six months of pay and health insurance. The settlement refers to “a difference in philosophy” between Isom and ECU and acknowledges that the firing was “not for cause.”

The “difference in philosophy” here is that Isom wanted to protect freedom of the press and ECU didn’t. I hope ECU appreciates the cost to North Carolina citizens when it violates fundamental rights.

Adam Kissel is Vice President of Programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He graduated from Harvard University and from the University of Chicago, where he served as Student Liaison to the Board of Trustees and earned a master’s degree from the Committee on Social Thought. His academic interests include the history and theory of liberal education, the history and theory of rhetoric, and rhetoric’s relationship with philosophy. He also has served as a professional editor for faculty in a variety of disciplines. Before joining FIRE, Adam was a director of the Lehrman American Studies Center and the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles. With Sharon Browne he wrote a Faculty Rights Handbook in 2007.

Used with the permission of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.