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University: Newspaper adviser fired over 'personnel issue,' not streaker photos

East Carolina University says its decision to fire the adviser to the student newspaper was based on a “personnel matter” and not a First Amendment issue related to the paper's publication of photographs of a streaker at a football game.

Paul Isom, adviser to the The East Carolinian, was terminated last Wednesday, two months after the newspaper published pictures of a nude streaker at a Nov. 5 football game against Southern Miss.

At the time, the university said student newspaper’s decision to publish the photos, which showed full frontal nudity, was “in very poor taste.”

“They told me they wanted to go in a different direction,” Isom told The Daily Reflector last week about his termination. “They were very cautious not to give me a real reason.”

The firing drew the ire of free-speech groups. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national advocacy organization, sent a letter to the university’s chancellor, Steve Ballard, calling the firing unwarranted and asking that Isom be reinstated immediatetely.

“Given The East Carolinian's unequivocal independence, ECU may not punish The East Carolinian for its exercise of expression protected by the First Amendment,” the letter said.

Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs, released a statement Tuesday explaining the university’s actions. The university declined further comment.

"We're going to let the statement speak for itself," Mary Schulken, university director of public affairs, told msnbc.com.

Here is Hardy’s statement in full:

East Carolina University is concerned that a decision to change leadership in its director of student media role has been connected to a First Amendment issue without full knowledge of the facts at hand.  It is important to distinguish between any personnel matter and the First Amendment.

We ask all advocacy groups and the public to trust our internal process, which has been deliberate, correct and legal, as we move forward to address these two separate issues.

The First Amendment demands public universities provide student journalists the opportunity to make their own news decisions and learn from them without interference. ECU puts that principle first. It has upheld it, especially in this instance.

We support The East Carolinian fully. Students have been the central focus of what we have done and the decisions that have been made. We have involved them openly when it was constructive and useful for their education, including holding open, informational discussions with the editorial staff to talk about the impact of news decisions.

Regarding editorial decisions in student media, we have respectfully allowed the student journalists to take their own course. We have and will continue to support their right to make decisions in publishing a newspaper for their fellow students.

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