'Editor in chief' principal, students settle

MISSISSIPPI — Itawamba Agricultural High School newspaper editors have agreed to stop threatening the school with a lawsuit challenging the principal, who named himself editor in chief of the paper more than two years ago.Principal Pete McMurry appointed himself head of the paper, The Chieftain, after confiscating copies of a 1996 issue that included a cartoon suggesting the superintendent did not have a plan for the long-term future of the school.The student editors, most of whom have graduated, sent McMurry and the district a draft of a possible lawsuit shortly after the confiscation and demanded the prior review policy be changed. The students, however, agreed to drop their threat of a lawsuit in the spring of 1997 because of community pressure, even though McMurry remained head of the paper.Melody Fielder, who served as the 1996-97 editor and is a freshman at the University of Southern Mississippi, said after she agreed to stop threatening the school with a lawsuit, McMurry took even more control over the publication.McMurry handed the newspaper staff a list of vague rules to follow this year, including: prior approval of the publication1s content and censorship of “foul” language and “offensive” material, Fielder said.”The school newspaper to him [McMurry] is something used to promote the school,” she said. “There is absolutely no journalistic effort put into the paper, and that’s how he likes it.”During the time when she was the student editor of the paper, Fielder said teachers and administrators pressured her to drop the case against the school on a daily basis.”There would be some days that I would walk down the halls and teachers would say things like, ‘you need to pick your battles and this one just isn’t the one to pick,'” she said. “It got to a point where I hated going to school.”McMurry denounced the idea that the paper has less freedom, stating the school is now initiating plans to form a journalism class and provide the paper with an adviser. He said he is no longer editor in chief, but rather describes himself as publisher.When asked what he would do if a student was writing an article critical of a teacher’s practices, McMurry said he would “rather see the matter settled outside the context of the paper so an article wouldn’t be too critical.”He went on to state that his ideal newspaper would be “something that reports the facts and at the same time enhances and supports the programs at the school.”The only facts allowed in the paper are basketball scores, Fielder said, who still considers McMurry the editor in chief of the paper since he “strictly reviews and restricts the paper’s content.””He won’t allow anything in the paper that might be critical of the school or himself,” she said. “That’s definitely not journalism.”