Mississippi Senate sidesteps plan to make rules for newspapers

Thursday, March 19, 1998

JACKSON, Miss. (AP)–Senators decided Wednesday not to send the governor a bill that requires Mississippi newspapers to publish obituaries free and sign their editorials.

The mandates approved by the House earlier this month, along with a ban on listing causes of deaths in obituaries, are still being debated.

The requirement that writers sign their editorials was promoted as a “Yellow Dog Journalism” amendment in the House.

Joseph Parker, a political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said lawmakers are lashing out at newspapers by passing unconstitutional mandates.

“They’ve made themselves look silly, foolish–like whining cry babies,” he said. “It’s about as useful as giving somebody the bird or sticking your tongue out at somebody.

“It’s hard for me to see why intelligent, grown people in the Mississippi Legislature would waste their time doing it. What they’re doing is saying we’ll … try to make them stop saying negative things about us by passing these,” Parker said.

Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, urged senators Wednesday to call for more talks on the changes that he said “might be considered a little frivolous.”

When asked about the free obituaries, he said 98 percent of Mississippi newspapers publish them at no cost already but the mandate “is not too bad.” On the editorial signature, he said, “there’s not much wrong with that one either.”

A committee of six lawmakers will work out a compromise on the bill, which originally dealt only with fees for running legal advertisements.

Sen. John White, D-Baldwyn, who questioned Gordon about the changes, said newspaper editorial writers should sign their work.

“He certainly has a right to his opinion, but he should sign it,” he said.

White also said he disagrees with the argument that opinions on an editorial page are views of the newspaper, not the particular writer.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. The paper can’t take a position,” he said.

White, however, said he does not feel that strongly about the requirement.

In past years the House has approved similar limits whenever newspaper bills were debated. The changes have died in the Senate.

“All three of those amendments are unconstitutional, an infringement of free press, the First Amendment,” said Charles Dunagin, a Mississippi Press Association officer and publisher-editor of the McComb Enterprise-Journal.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said newspapers should make their own policies on such issues.

“For probably 200 years newspapers have had unsigned editorials. I don’t see why we should stop it,” said Tollison. “It will take one phone call to figure out who wrote an editorial. You can call them up and they’ll probably tell you.”

Dunagin said some newspapers have editorial boards that take positions on issues then have someone write an opinion article on that stand.

On obituaries, Tollison said newspapers should publish basic obituaries for free, but “it should be up to the paper. They can establish good will in a community by providing it free of charge.”

The bill is Senate Bill 2800.