Cheers at a high school graduation led to arrests for some overzealous parents and have sparked a national controversy over the limits of free speech.
The controversial arrests took place after the Senatobia High School graduation in Senatobia, Mississippi. Police ended up issuing several arrest warrants for family members who shouted out words of encouragement to their graduates.
The school’s principal had asked people to hold their applause until the end, but a few people had trouble containing their enthusiasm.
“When [my niece] went across the stage I just called her name out. ‘Lakaydra.’ Just like that,” Ursula Miller told local news station WREG,
Miller was one of four people asked to leave the ceremony for cheering. Their situation got even worse a few days later when they were served with arrest warrants for disturbing the peace.
The graduation cheer arrests soon made nationwide headlines. The New York Times picked up the story, and the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to defend the people arrested.
The group said that Senatobia school Superintendent Jay Foster is violating the First Amendment rights of those arrested.
“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 school district is presenting another side of the story. Foster said he has become strict because the cheering at graduation has gotten so bad in the past few years that the ceremony itself was being virtually shut down.
“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 also didn’t feel sympathy for those arrested.
“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 is making waves in the local community, and the college that hosted the school’s graduation said it may no longer do so.
The people arrested for their graduation cheers face up to six months in jail or a $500 fine.
[Image via Getty Images/Jens Schlueter]