Student press faces high cost of free speech

The Chart

On Jan. 4, Paul Isom lost his job.

Most of you probably have no idea who Paul Isom is or why this means anything to us, so let us explain. Isom was the adviser for the The East Carolinian, the student publication at Eastern Carolina University.

He was fired almost two months to the day after his students—the paper’s staff—published photos of a streaker at an ECU football game.

One of the photos clearly showed the streaker’s penis.

Rather than give Isom a direct reason for his firing, the administration simply told him the university wanted to go “in a different direction.”

According to reports, Isom was a good adviser. He led his students to the best of his ability, often going above and beyond the call of duty.

Sound familiar?

Isom’s case is eerily similar to that of Thom Hanrahan, former Chart adviser, whose contract was not renewed last spring.

Would we have printed the photos? If we’re being honest, no. At least not the photo with the streaker’s penis exposed.

But it isn’t our job to determine whether what The East Carolinian’s editors did was right or wrong. And guess what. It wasn’t Isom’s job either.

A student media adviser’s job isn’t to tell us what we can or can’t print, only to help us through the daily struggles of running a newspaper. Sure, content discussions happen, but it isn’t their place to tell us we absolutely must or must not print a story or photo.

At the end of the day, that decision is entirely up to us. It is, however, our adviser’s duty to respect and help us utilize our first amendment rights to freedom of press and freedom of speech.

We feel that The East Carolinian’s staff cost Isom his job. This isn’t an attack on that staff. Isom stands by them and their decision, and we have no reason to question his support.

However, it must be noted that there are risks one takes when stepping into the realm of journalism. The lesson isn’t that we should be afraid to exercise our right to freedom of speech or press, but that we should be aware that there are consequences for what we write and print. In this particular instance, a man lost his job.

In other examples, a journalist may be sued, fired or even arrested for exercising the right we fight so hard to uphold. Every journalist goes into the profession knowing the risks. Or at least they should.

Every media adviser also goes into the job knowing the risks. But they also need to be able to model for their students the fine balance between freedom of speech and responsibility to themselves, their profession and their employer.

Just like every reporter who goes to jail rather than reveal sources in a whistle-blowing case, this fired adviser has to learn how to move on and continue his career in the wake of controversy.

Last semester, The Chart staff was accused of avoiding hard stories for fear of retaliation after Hanrahan’s inauspicious departure. But the moral of these stories isn’t to play it safe. We see that, and we hope other student publications do too.

As student journalists, we will struggle. We will make mistakes. We may even piss off a few people. At the end of the day, though, we’re learning, getting better and achieving new things. These struggles and successes are shared with our advisers.

The question for folks like Isom, then, becomes one only they can answer.

Was it worth it?