IAHS principal yanks school paper over cartoon

AUTHOR: MONIQU

IAHS principal yanks school paper over cartoon

By Monique Harrison

Daily Journal

FULTON – An edition of the Itawamba Agricultural High School student newspaper has been confiscated by Principal Pete McMurray because it contains a cartoon ridiculing Itawamba County Schools Superintendent F.G. Wiygul’s handling of the proposed merger between IAHS and the county school district.

McMurray said the estimated 300 issues of The Chieftain locked in his office won’t see the light of day, unless students agree to have the edition reprinted without the cartoon.

“As is, these papers aren’t going out,” said McMurray, who is in his second year as principal of the 430-student school. “This is a cartoon that made fun of a public official. I didn’t feel it was appropriate.”

The 16-year-old who drew the cartoon said she didn’t expect it to cause a stir.

“We had this big hole we had to fill,” said sophomore Jessica Russell. “Since it was on the editorial page, someone said, ‘What we really need is a political cartoon.’ I told them I had an idea about Wiygul. I told them the idea and we all just kind of laughed and I did it. I think it turned out pretty well. I mean, it even looks a little like him.”

Russell said what she sees as Wiygul’s hesitancy to take a stand on IAHS’ proposed breakaway from Itawamba Community College seemed like a prime subject.

“I figured nothing ever happened in Itawamba County until now,” she said.

The school has been under the control of ICC since 1948. Today, it is one of just four such partnerships in the state. A similar transfer request was fought off in 1994.

Standing behind decision

Itawamba Community College President David Cole, who serves as superintendent of the school because it is under ICC’s direction, said he stands behind McMurry.

“It would be inappropriate for a high school paper to cast a local elected official in a bad light,” Cole said.

Russell said she tried to show the cartoon to both Wiygul and McMurray, but both were out of the office.

“I couldn’t find them,” she said. “We didn’t have time to wait around. We had a newspaper to put out. Besides, we weren’t obligated to show him. I was just curious about their reaction.”

After the newspaper was confiscated, editor J.J. Nunnellee put together an underground newspaper telling students what had happened and asking them to wear a purple ribbon to show support for the paper staff.

McMurray said he was aware the underground flier was being circulated.

Students aren’t budging

Staff members, who put together the school newspaper with only minimal assistance from their sponsor, have had several meetings with the principal, who has offered to personally pay for the papers’ reprinting.

But students say they aren’t budging.

“It’s all or nothing,” Nunnellee said. “This is the best paper we’ve ever put together at this school. It’s very professional – high quality. And it needs to go out.”

“We are doing this so the students who come behind us will have the freedom to express themselves,” Russell said. “What bothers me is that if this had been a caricature of Bob Dole or someone, then it wouldn’t have been a big deal.”

Cole doesn’t deny that Russell got into trouble because her cartoon hit too close to home.

“There’s a very impersonal relationship between regional, state or national officials,” he said. “But here, you have a relatively small community, where relationships are close. There are repercussions when you all live together, work together, go to church together and socialize together. You have a case here where the principal is the publisher of the paper.”

Wiygul, who is the subject of the cartoon, declined comment, saying he has only heard about the cartoon in passing. He said he had no interest in seeing the cartoon.

Constitutionality question

Local press law experts are divided on the constitutionality of the confiscation.

Looking at U.S. Supreme Court precedence, the court ruled in Tinker vs. Des Moines that students’ constitutional rights do not stop at the schoolhouse door.

But in the more recent Hazlewood vs. Kuhlmeier, the court ruled that schools have the right to censor student publications if they interfere with the administration of the school.

“The district could certainly argue that this cartoon would lower student esteem for the superintendent,” said Mississippi State University assistant professor Mark Goodman, who teaches press law. “Basically, the school district can do what it wants unless students can show this cartoon has absolutely no impact on the school environment.”

But Dr. Jere Hoar, journalism professor emeritus from the University of Mississippi, said he doesn’t see how the cartoon in question could be disruptive enough to warrant censorship.

“The principal only has the right to seize the paper if there is danger of disruption and that is not what I’m hearing here,” Hoar said. “If a school has allowed the creation of a school newspaper and they permit it to be published under the editorial direction of students, they may not suddenly abrogate those rights.”

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