The adviser to the East Carolina student newspaper, The East Carolinian, is getting a lot of attention. You can read about it here at the Student Press Law Center or watch a news video about it. I have no connection to the adviser, Paul Isom.
However, I am bothered that Mr. Isom was fired for this. In all my training as a student newspaper advise, as well as time advising for both the Grand Rapids Community College Collegiate and the Ferris State University Torch, this goes against all I have learned: The First Amendment and legal precedence supports the fact that student newspaper staff make their own content decisions.
In November 2011, the East Carolinian opted to run a full frontal nudity photo of a male streaking at a football game. While this may be offensive to some, and many college newspaper advisers would prefer their students would choose not to run a photo like this, it is not the advisers decision in the end.
Firing the adviser is an unfortunate, knee-jerk reaction by administrators who do not understand the role of journalism in society, let alone the role of student journalism on a university campus. The students involved here will learn little from the situation in terms of journalism.
I would call this a disappointing end to the situation. However, instead I hope it is not the end. I have sent letters to the two supervisors identified by Mr. Isom, including Director of Marketing and Communications Chris Stansbury.
I hope more people voice their opinions - and while doing so can see beyond their immediate like or dislike of the photo that ran in the paper. This is a much bigger long-term issue that includes a move toward prior review and a chilling effect regarding the content of student newspapers.
I am lucky enough to have been supported by my direct supervisors in a couple of cases that did attract some negative response at The Torch: Once for an advertisement that used a questionable depiction of a woman, once for a photo of the T-shirt students were selling that said Fuck Shit Up (FSU), and most recently for an editorial cartoon that depicted a sorority member in poor light.
All three times there was reason for some people to be offended by the material. All three times I supported the student newspaper staff decisions. All three times we had serious conversations about the decisions they made. And all three times those who did not agree with the newspaper had an opportunity to voice their opinions - in print, online and in person.
All three times, learning happened.