Superintendent won't drop cheering charges, says graduation should be 'solemn'
JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — The Mississippi school superintendent who pressed charges against people for cheering at a high school graduation ceremony 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 (50 kilometers) 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.”
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