Streaker isn’t college’s greatest embarrassment

Friday, January 6, 2012

A streaker at an East Carolina University football game produced much more than just a crass — and somewhat dated — distraction during a halftime ceremony last Nov. 5.

The naked miscreant set off a series of events which led to the firing this week of Paul Isom, adviser to The East Carolinian student newspaper. According to reports, he was dismissed Jan. 4 in connection with publication of news photos of the incident.

The firing has prompted national criticism from college-media professionals and student press advocates — a number of whom, by the way, also are critical of the decision to publish the photos. They say Isom’s removal is unjustified, unfair and a slap at student press freedom.

Isom is quoted on several Web sites as saying that blocking the disputed photos prior to publication would have overstepped his authority and would have been at cross-purposes with his role as adviser rather than editor.

The East Carolinian is touted by the school as largely self-supporting and independent, through advertising revenues, and it is not a part of the ECU journalism department. But a school spokesman said today that the paper was subsidized in a “minimal way” with free office space and utilities, and by receiving a small portion of student publication fees that flow through a Media Board.

On Nov. 8, the newspaper published a three-photo sequence of the streaker being chased on the field and tackled campus police. The photos are not close-ups, but in one, the man is shown full body, facing the camera and running. The images appear to be a taken from far off the field.

In an era of debate over hard-core online imagery and subscription cable programs that bring graphic sexual activity to home TV sets, taking offense at simple nudity has a quaint, old-fashioned air — if free press issues at a 27,000-student university weren’t involved.

Vice Chancellor Virginia Hardy initially said in a brief written statement that the newspaper’s decision was “in very poor taste,” unsupported by “leadership at East Carolina University,” but also noted that East Carolinian student editors “ultimately are responsible” for the content. She said official follow-up recognized the newspaper as a “learning environment” and that conversations with those involved would held in an “effort to make it a learning experience.”

The student editor responded to that criticism by saying she and other editors decided to publish unedited images because “while the photos may be seen as offensive to some, the photos were not meant to be seen as sexually suggestive or insulting, but instead an accurate account.”

Fast-forward to this week. Isom’s gone, and university officials cite personnel matters as the reason “we will not make any additional comment.” So much for learning experiences, conversations, student independence and ultimate responsibility.

It’s worth noting that the school’s own Media Board “constitution,” available online, makes no mention of any content role for the student publication adviser it employs to oversee financial matters. It also makes no mention of any authority by what a spokesperson called “a group of administrators” to convene and fire Isom for any reason.

Apart from the incident’s particulars and the very real pain to Isom, the situation now stands as a terrible teaching moment — about judgment, press freedom and responsibility, and a university’s position as a place where students can test what they learn and, occasionally, learn from mistakes or controversies without the harm that can follow in “the real world.”

Most East Carolina students will graduate over the next months and years. Isom is looking for work and may sue the school over his termination. The streaking suspect — a 21-year old non-student, by the way — still faces minor criminal charges for his momentary antic.

But the ECU campus officials involved will forever look sophomoric for what seems an overreaction and a fundamental misunderstanding of what an “adviser” does — provide not control, but context, comment and criticism.   No fig leaf will cover that exposed condition.

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