Susan C. Allen

Mississippi high school graduation attendees face jail time for cheering

Four relatives of students at Senatobia High School face charges for disturbing the peace

Four audience members of a high school graduation ceremony in Senatobia, Mississippi are facing possible jail time and fines after the school’s superintendent filed charges of disturbing the peace against them for cheering, local media reported.

Senatobia High School Superintendent Jay Foster had asked friends and family attending the May 21 graduation to hold cheers and applause until the end of the ceremony, according to WREG-TV, a CBS-affiliated television station. He threatened that those who didn’t comply with the rule would be forced to leave.

Four audience members, relatives of graduating seniors, broke the rule and were subsequently kicked out. However, one week later they were also served with court papers.

Under Mississippi law, breach of peace crimes are considered misdemeanors and punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

Henry Walker, one of the four people facing penalties, was asked to leave the ceremony after he yelled “You did it baby” at his daughter and waved a towel.

“It’s crazy,” Walker told WREG-TV. “The fact that I might have to bond out of jail, pay court costs, or a $500 fine for expressing my love, it’s ridiculous man. It’s ridiculous.”

His wife, Linda Walker, said the family could not afford the fine.

“Why assign papers on someone? We don’t have money for anything like that,” she said.

Foster told WREG-TV that he’s determined to maintain order at graduation ceremonies, but did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute, called the charges “bizarre.”

“On the face of it, this seems like an extreme reaction by a public official,” Policinski told Al Jazeera.

While schools have the right to maintain order during events, the conduct in question would still need to rise to the level of disturbing the peace in order to sustain a criminal conviction, he said. “The first question the judge will ask is whether there was a substantial disruption. Merely being irritated wouldn’t rise to criminal conduct.”

Ursula Miller, an aunt of one of the graduates also facing charges, told WREG-TV that she was asked to leave after she called out her niece’s name.

“When she went across the stage I just called her name out. ‘Lakaydra.’ Just like that,” Miller told the news channel. “I can understand they can escort me out of the graduation, but to say they going to put me in jail for it. What else are they allowed to do?”

According to Policinski, charges of disturbing the peace are typically filed in connection with fan conduct at sporting events where the disruption is “persistent and substantial.” He added that society generally treats "hold your applause” as a formality not meant to be strictly enforced.

“I’m not sure the average person would think that cheering for your daughter would constitute criminal conduct even if it’s rude or impolite. Here, we get into manners and courtesy as opposed to matters of criminal conduct,” he said.

The four people charged are scheduled to appear in court on Monday.

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