Updated at 3:20 p.m.
Kimberly Martin started her new job as principal of Woodrow Wilson High School in late June, just in time to prepare for the 2015-16 school year. Part of those preparations, however, hasn’t gone down so well in the halls of the Northwest D.C. school.
An editorial by the Wilson Beacon, the student newspaper, rips Martin for instituting a policy of prior review for its content. “On the first day of school, Principal Kimberly Martin told us that she was instituting a policy of prior review for The Beacon. Her reasoning: that’s how she’s operated before,” notes the piece, which is a staff editorial. Though the editorial notes that prior review falls within Martin’s legal purview, this is the “first time that prior review has been required for The Beacon. And as committed journalists, we staunchly oppose it.”
The editorial is titled, “Prior Review is Indirect Censorship.” If the Erik Wemple Blog had prior review of the editorial, we’d change that to “direct censorship.”
The student journalists make the familiar points about how prior review impinges on their creative freedom: “Student journalism is about questioning the way that our school and our society operates. Not only does prior review take away our freedom to criticize, it creates an atmosphere of censorship that will make students more reluctant to tell their stories,” notes the editorial. And, in breaking news situations, it’ll all but halt the news process; not only does Martin demand review of each issue of the Wilson Beacon, but also Web pieces/updates. “The Beacon website was created to share news quickly and keep our student body informed,” notes the piece. “Our web coverage of the resignation of former principal Pete Cahall, for instance, was praised by DC Urban Moms and Forest Hills Connection for its prompt publication.”
So what does Martin have to say about all this? In a statement provided by the D.C. Public Schools, she says: “It is my intention to make all decisions based on student learning and the decision of prior review is in line with my personal and professional philosophy as an educator. Keeping students safe and protected are parts of my job that I take very seriously.”
A DCPS spokeswoman, meanwhile, says that the school system leaves these decision in the hands of “individual schools and principals.” Furthermore, the spokeswoman says that prior review of school newspaper material is a “common and expected practice, most assuredly for students who could face the threat of libel or slander, thus placing the entire school in jeopardy.”
The students have launched a petition on Change.org, and it’s already getting some support from big-time Washington types:
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, The Beacon’s top staffers described the process for compliance with Principal Martin’s requirements. Last Tuesday night the editors were preparing to go to press with their first monthly edition. They sent the text of the issue to Martin, in accordance with this new rule, at 10:50 p.m. that night. Martin responded the next morning at 5:30 a.m. with a simple “Thank you!” according to the editors. The catch: The Beacon couldn’t wait that long, and the newspaper went to press before receiving the green light from Martin. “At that point we hadn’t worked out a turnaround time,” says Erin Doherty, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief.
The valuable lesson here for DCPS students: An efficient censorship arrangement requires careful coordination.
“It is a huge time commitment to read the entire paper and to look over every article, including web articles,” said Helen Malhotra, co-editor-in-chief. The Beacon, says Malhotra, has a “longstanding history of being a reliable and trustworthy news source that doesn’t need prior review, so for her to be spending so much time on this seems to be something that’s not worth her time.” Rachel Page, the Beacon’s written content editor, concurs, “There are a lot more important things she could be doing.”
Wilson kicked off the school year last Monday, and in addition to the first issue of The Beacon, the paper’s staff has produced five Web articles that have secured Martin’s say-so. Replies from the principal on those pieces have generally come within an hour of their submission, says Malhotra.
The Beacon relies on the assistance of two adult advisers who review the newspaper’s stories for legal and journalistic potholes. “If she wants to look over the paper, then what’s the point of having two advisers?” asks Malhotra.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the D.C.-based Student Press Law Center, points out that the policy threatens to violate the D.C. students’ bill of rights. “Each student shall have the right to exercise his or her constitutional rights of free speech, assembly, and expression without prior restraint, so long as the exercise of these rights does not substantially interfere with the rights of others,” reads that document, which specifically cites publication of newspapers as one of the protected activities. The document is incorporated into the D.C. code.
“If [Martin] uses the power of prior review as a pocket veto to keep news from getting out, yes, that would be a violation of the code,” says LoMonte, who notes that a survey found that prior review affects about one-third of high school publications. Prior review of high-school journalism is allowable under a 1988 Supreme Court ruling in the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.
Yet just because the highest court in the land permits prior review of high school newspapers doesn’t mean it’s good management. “What’s surprising about this is it’s an ain’t broke but let’s fix it anyway approach,” says LoMonte. “This is a highly decorated program and darned if the principal hasn’t made up her mind to screw it up.”
A piece of advice from the Erik Wemple Blog to the staff of the Wilson Beacon: Get busy. Write 40 articles a day; cover everything from that huge pool to the traffic outside to the bus stop to the offerings at that high-priced grocery story around the corner. Send it all to Martin, each update in its own e-mail. Include deadlines for the principal to sign off. Pressure her if she doesn’t meet her deadlines. Call her cellphone, her home phone. If she wants this job, in other words, she can have it.