Mississippi superintendent won't say if he'll drop charges against cheering spectators

A Mississippi superintendent who pressed charges against people for cheering during a high school graduation ceremony says he plans to make a statement in court Tuesday, but did not say whether he would drop the charges.

Senatobia school Superintendent Jay Foster reiterated Friday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that his aim is to ensure that some families do not ruin graduations by causing a ruckus. He said that when he first started at Senatobia four years ago, out-of-control cheering meant some families could not hear a graduate’s name called or see them walk across 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."

Foster said he filed a misdemeanor, disturbing-the-peace charges against three people because they disobeyed repeated instructions to hold back the cheers at the May 21 event. Before filing the charges, which carry a fine of up to $500 and six months of jail time, 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 focus has put the small town in the national spotlight. 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.

Foster denied 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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report