Defending dignity? Mississippi to press charges for cheering at graduation

A Mississippi school superintendent say he will press disturbing-the-peace charges against three people who cheered during a high school graduation.

(Bruce Newman/The Oxford Eagle via AP)
Woody Sorenson leads the crowd in a impromptu "Hotty Toddy", which is the school cheer, before the start of the University of Mississippi graduation ceremony in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, May 9, 2015. Such graduation cheering is frowned upon by a Mississippi high school superintendent.

The Mississippi school superintendent who pressed charges against people for cheering at a high school graduation says he plans to be in court Tuesday and make a statement then, but won't say if he'll drop the charges.

Senatobia school Superintendent Jay Foster reiterated in a telephone interview Friday that his aim is to ensure that some families don't ruin graduations for others by raising a ruckus. He said that when he first started at Senatobia four years ago, out-of-control cheering meant some families couldn't hear a graduate's name called or see them cross the stage to receive their diploma.

"I think graduation should be a solemn occasion," he said. "It should have some dignity and decorum and at the end we'll celebrate together."

He said he filed misdemeanor, disturbing-the-peace charges against three people because they disobeyed repeated instructions to hold cheers at the May 21 event. Before filing the charges, which carry a fine of up to $500 and jail time of up to six months, Foster said he consulted with school board members, administrators and the district's lawyer.

"We thought, let's serve them with papers for disturbing the peace," he said. "They'll pay a fine. Maybe they'll learn their lesson. It was not about punishing these people. It was about the rights of the other graduates."

The incident has focused national attention on the town of 8,000 about 30 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. But while out-of-town reaction has been heavy on scorn and disbelief, Foster said people came to a school board meeting after the story broke to voice their approval.

"The local people who know what's going on are very supportive," said Jim Keith, lawyer for the Senatobia district.

Those who called reporters to complain were African-American, but Foster denies any racial animus, noting that two black people and two white people were escorted out. Foster has said the fourth person's identity is unknown, and so that person has not been charged.

One who has been charged, 45-year-old Ursula Miller, told The Associated Press she was only trying to celebrate her niece's achievement. Miller said she expected to be escorted out, but thinks a criminal charge is an overreaction. Miller is scheduled to appear Tuesday in Tate County Justice Court.

The Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said that Foster is violating First Amendment rights and that those who cheered did not do anything that could be considered a crime.

"The First Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly prohibits the making of any law that would impede the freedom of speech," Mississippi ACLU Legal Director Charles Irvin said in a statement. "Citizens should be able to enjoy the right of free speech, especially at a congratulatory event, like a high school graduation. The cheering by the family does not qualify as a disturbance of the peace and should not have elicited a criminal response."

Meanwhile, Northwest Mississippi Community College, which hosts graduations not only for Senatobia but for several other nearby high schools, said it may no longer do so. Spokeswoman Sarah Sapp said the college has taken a lot of heat because its police chief helped Foster fill out the criminal charges, which she described as part of the chief's routine duties. In Mississippi, typically any adult can swear out a misdemeanor charge, with courts later judging whether the charge is merited.

In another graduation controversy, a Native American student who sued his California school district because it refused to let him wear an eagle feather to his high school graduation was able to wear the sacred item after all.

Attorneys for Christian Titman and officials with Clovis Unified School District reached an agreement Tuesday night allowing him to wear the feather, said Rebecca Farmer, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, one of the groups representing the 18-year-old student.

His lawyers had argued in court that the student's rights to freedom of expression and religion in the state constitution were being violated.

Titman, a member of the Pit River Tribe, said he wanted to attach the 5-inch feather he received from his father to the tassel on his cap at the Clovis High School ceremony.

In a letter to Titman's attorneys, Superintendent Janet Young said the district has a strict graduation dress code intended to show "respect for the formality of the graduation ceremony, unity of the graduating class, and also to avoid disruption of the graduation ceremonies that would likely occur if students were allowed to alter or add on to their graduation cap and gown."

The district previously refused to allow stoles, leis, rosaries and necklaces on graduation caps and gowns, and its dress code is neutral to any religion, Young said. Titman could wear the eagle feather after the ceremony and take photos with the principal, she said.


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