What Will It Take To Bring Paul Isom’s Case at East Carolina U. Back to the Media Spotlight?

Paul Isom made his case to attendees at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium at Virginia Tech Friday. Now it’s up to AEJMC and SPJ to take another look at the free expression issues in this matter.

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It’s been nearly four months since a streaker took the field during halftime at a East Carolina University football game and photos of the incident were published in The East Carolinian, ECU’s student newspaper.

Just a little more than two months ago, Paul Isom, the University’s student media director was removedfrom his position.

In a 25-minute address to attendees at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium Friday at Virginia Tech, Paul Isom told of his termination as director of student media at East Carolina University.

The decision sparked a flurry of media reports around the country, especially among those of us in journalism circles, who are advocates for student free expression.

Probably not a moment too soon for East Carolina University, the media publicity of this case has subsided to barely a mention.

As Isom appeals for his old job, he continues to work as an ECU journalism instructor, even as he tells his story to crowds like the one last week at Virginia Tech.

“I was fired in retaliation for an editorial decision, students made,” Isom told a small group of journalism faculty last Friday during a keynote luncheon. “It was retaliation for protected speech pure and simple.”

We’ve posted both edited excerpts and the FULL 25-minute address to attendees at the 37th Annual AEJMC Southeast Colloquium (in three parts)  on our YouTube Channel.

Did Isom Make His Case?

You may recall in a post here  last week, I outlined five guidelines for Isom’s speechwriters putting together this address, one of his first to a crowd of his peers, many of whom came to his defense after the January firing.

In his talk, Isom focused on unpacking three questions at the center of case:

  1. In running the photos, did student make a good editorial decision?
  2. Should he as faculty adviser have told them (the students) not to run the photos?
  3. Do student affairs administrators have the training, judgment or intelligence to oversee student media?

From comparing and contrasting three different structures for oversight of student media (501c3 non-profit, student affairs, academic department) to showing a series of photos where nudity made its way into other college publications, Isom did make a rather convincing case.

His defense of his actions was more than adequate just as his knowledge of the relevant case law related to student expression.      It’s this type of skill that most colleges would want to have at the helm of their student media office.

This is why Isom has a national reputation in the arena of collegiate press and media.

What ECU Officials Did and Why

The higher-ups at East Carolina have yet to decide whether they will entertain an appeal by Isom for his old position.  Isom devoted a good deal of his address trying to explain what they said and why he thinks they said it.

“The facts indicate that the University was embarrassed by the negative publicity it received as a result of the students’ decision to publish the nude photos,” Isom said.

What SPJ And AEJMC Apparently Did Not Do

As a long-time member of both the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), I was disturbed by the apparent lack of  follow-through on the part of these organizations’ efforts to make public statements defending Isom’s actions in the publication of the photos.

Isom explained that once it was reported that ECU officials offered to open his personnel file, pending Isom’s approval, the case seemed to be dropped by both AEJMC and SPJ like a hot potato.

Even so, letters were sent to the University  from the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

What Should Happen Next?

Even as Isom appeals his removal,  perhaps the next move should come from both AEJMC and SPJ to shine the spotlight on this case.  AEJMC represents the academic community while SPJ includes both academic practitioners and thousands of working journalists.

At the very least, there is a rich case study for journalism students to study and use as a template for what can happen when you exercise your First Amendment rights.

There are issues at play that are bigger than Isom’s employment as student media director.

Following his luncheon address, Isom (left) was joined by Kelly Wolff of Virginia Tech and Clay Calvert of University of Florida in a panel discussion focused on student free press issues.

The case law and a subsequent panel discussion Friday involving other journalism faculty at the Southeast Colloquium uncovered issues that warrant a national discussion.

By bringing Isom’s removal back to the spotlight, we as journalism faculty can take a closer look at the right place for student media outlets, the expectations of those who have advisory (not supervisory) roles with these outlets and the kind of questions students ought to consider when deciding to publish controversial material.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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