The staff of Wilson High School’s newspaper has been facing an unprecedented journalistic challenge during the first days of the school year: The District school’s new principal instituted a policy requiring that the students allow her to review all of the paper’s work before publication.
On the first day of classes last week, Principal Kimberly Martin announced to the staff of the Beacon that the students would have to let her see advance copies of all articles destined for the print newspaper and its Web site. The decision immediately led to an online petition and backlash from students, who wrote in an editorial that they “staunchly oppose” Martin’s new policy.
“It is disrespectful to The Beacon staff to suggest that we don’t have the capacity to decide what is appropriate to publish in our paper,” the editors wrote. “The Beacon is our paper and our responsibility, and while Martin is our principal, she is not our editor.”
A petition started by the students on Change.org garnered more than 450 signatures and called on Martin to reconsider her policy, which she told the students she has followed in her previous stints as a principal in Colorado and elsewhere.
On Monday — after The Washington Post published a story online about the decision — Martin informed the student journalists that she would consider discontinuing her prior-review policy if the Beacon’s editors agreed to submit revised protocols for ensuring accountability and accuracy in reporting and quotations.
Many of the nation’s public school principals require that student newspapers run their material by school leaders before publication. Such policies are supported by legal precedent but are often controversial because students see them as an infringement on their free speech. School principals are allowed to preview and censor student publications under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision in 1988, which ruled that administrations have a legitimate stake in the quality of the content within school newspapers.
Martin said in a statement that her goal in instituting prior review was to help the students learn how to put out the most professional newspaper possible. Under D.C. Public Schools policy, each principal is allowed to decide how to handle student publications to ensure that the teenagers avoid legal problems.
“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,” Martin said in a statement provided to The Post. “Keeping students safe and protected are parts of my job that I take very seriously.”
Erin Doherty, 17, a senior who is co-editor of the Beacon, said that Martin told the staff on the second day of classes that she was instituting the new policy.
“We were really shocked,” Doherty said. “We weren’t expecting it at all.”
Rachel Page, 17, a senior who helped write the editorial, said she hoped other student journalists follow their example by standing up to administrations that urge prior review.
“I think it’s really important, especially because we are in the nation’s capital and free speech is such a big issue,” Page said. “We should be representing democratic journalism.”
Co-editor Helen Malhotra, 17, said an initial meeting with Martin to discuss the new policy and to ask her to reconsider her position did not go well.
“It was really belittling because she said we shouldn’t compare ourselves to real journalism organizations,” Malhotra said. “I feel like we as students shouldn’t strive for anything less.”
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced Martin as the new Wilson principal on June 2, after Pete Cahall left abruptly in December. Cahall left his job early when he learned his contract was not being renewed because of test performance issues at the school in Northwest Washington. Cahall is now leading a school in Montgomery County.
In their editorial, posted online Friday, Beacon editors wrote that prior review is difficult to implement and is inefficient in an age when the students are constantly updating their Web site with breaking news.
“Even a small delay would keep our content from being as relevant as it could be,” the students wrote. “Prior review takes away a crucial step in the journalism process: the step where we learn how to deal with mess-ups and complaints.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said student lawsuits challenging school administration censorship are rare, but he said many students push back.
“It’s pretty much unanimously understood in the journalism education field that prior review by an administration is a bad practice educationally and journalistically,” LoMonte said.
The Beacon editorial, which included an image of a stamp showing that it had been “Approved by Principal Martin,” noted that the newspaper is foremost an outlet for the students to express their opinions. The Beacon typically has been free of meddling from administrators.
“Student journalism is about questioning the way that our school and our society operates,” the students wrote. “If Principal Martin wishes to publish her own newspaper representing the Wilson administration rather than the student body, she can. We won’t ask for prior review.”