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CENSOR OR SAVIOR? Documents detail Ryan Ferguson high school interview ban

Surprising revelations -- and true hate mail

COLUMBIA, Mo 5/14/14 (Beat Byte) -- Bill Ferguson -- who worked for a decade to free his son Ryan from prison over the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sportswriter Kent Heitholt -- has released 191 pages of documents about a controversial 2013 decision to ban Ryan from speaking at Hickman High School. 

Dozens of emails from around Missouri and the nation condemn Hickman principal Tracey Conrad's decision to prohibit Ryan Ferguson from interviewing with high school journalism students on campus a few weeks after a Missouri Appeals Court vacated his murder conviction.  

A surprising disagreement between Columbia Public Schools community relations director Michelle Baumstark and Superintendent Chris Belcher also emerges.  Baumstark worried prohibiting Ferguson's on-campus interview would come across as "censorship," while Belcher supported the ban over concerns about "crowd control" and classroom "disruption." 

The documents contradict school district administrator claims that "numerous complaints" against the planned visit prompted the prohibition.   But they also support Belcher's contention that many of the emails were "negative and hateful."

Bill Ferguson received the documents as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.  

Forty seven people emailed supporting his son's campus visit
and/or condemning the ban;  six people wrote opposing the visit.  

Ferguson received no emails or other communications pushing for the ban before the scheduled November 21 visit.   "Dr. Conrad would have us believe she was contacted by parents on the 20th, yet no documentation has been provided to support her statement," Ferguson explained. 

Conrad also told Belcher and journalism teacher Kim Pettlon that "relatives of Kent Heitholt are students at our school."  That claim, too, was unfounded Ferguson said.  "There is no documentation we have found to verify if, in fact, there were any relatives of the murder victim attending Hickman High School at the time of Ryan's proposed visit," he explained.  

Shortly after pro-liberty activist group Keep Columbia Free broke the Hickman-Ferguson story, emails, phone calls, and other communications poured into Conrad's office. 

Hickman alum and Columbia resident Kevin Hunt wrote he was "deeply disturbed" and "deeply ashamed" by Conrad's decision.   "This is an opportunity, NOT a distraction," he wrote. 

"Shame on you!" Teresa Boyer and Jamie Hartley emailed.  "Both my kids graduated from Hickman," Hartley added. 

Calling the decision "disappointing," Hickman alum and University of West Florida strength coach Josh Holman urged Conrad to reconsider.   "I learned a lot from [journalism teacher] Ron Widben," now retired from Hickman, Holman explained.  "I have a strong passion for free press."

Vandalia Leader newspaper editor and manager Ron Schott echoed Holman's concerns.  "Please spare me the 'disruption to class' speech," he emailed Conrad.  "This isn't a disruption; this is an educational experience."

A handful of emails supported the decision, but with names redacted.  "As a parent and former CPS employee, I want to thank you for your stance on the Ryan Ferguson interview," read one such Nov. 23 email to Conrad. 

While most of the emails were respectful, several were nasty.  "You are as bad as the low life who derailed Ryan's life for over 10 years," wrote Jean Watson from Nevada, Missouri, peppering her comments with epithets. 

"You're purely evil for not letting an innocent man tell his story," wrote Will Petersen

"Not only are you ugly as hell, but you are a complete embarassment to mankind," Ben Philips emailed Conrad, who dutifully responded to each writer, sometimes with a form letter but many times with one-on-one correspondence. 

"I do not envy your job -- tough position," Pettlon emailed Conrad.  "I do think it's fantastic that the students are up in arms to do a school assignment.   That part of it all is a blessing." 


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