D.C. principal will no longer exercise prior review of student newspaper, after backlash

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The new principal of Woodrow Wilson High School, Kimberly Martin, will soften her announced prior review policy for the student newspaper, after an intense outcry from student journalists and the larger community.

Erin Doherty and Helen Malhotra, co-editors-in-chief of The Wilson Beacon, said they are revisiting their editorial policies to create a clearly outlined chain of responsibilities and will now verify quotes in future articles.

“The editors will send Principal Martin the revised editorial policies and once all policies are mutually agreed on, she’ll discontinue the process of prior review,” they said in an email.

D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Anna Gregory said in an email that before the paper is published now, it will be reviewed by either Martin or a newspaper adviser. 

In an interview, Doherty said she was happy and grateful about the change in the decision.

“It’ll make the process kind of more what it was — the students are in charge of our publication,” she said.

They are still working out the details of the new chain of responsibilities, but Doherty said she thinks more editors will be looking at articles before they are published, which she said will make the articles better.

Martin also asked them to verify all quotes with sources before publishing them, and Doherty said reporters will now be asked to record interviews to make sure the sources cannot change their quotes.

This is Martin’s first year as principal at Wilson High School. Shortly before the start of this school year, Martin notified the students that she would be breaking with school tradition and requiring administrative pre-approval of the newspaper. She had said in a statement that the decision “is in line with my personal and professional philosophy as an educator” and that she made the decision, like all others, “based on student learning.”

“Since high schools are institutions of learning, and a journalism class at a high school presumes to prepare students for careers in journalism, prior review is a common and expected practice, most assuredly for students who could face the threat of libel and slander, thus placing the entire school in jeopardy,” Gregory said. 

In the first issue of The Wilson Beacon this school year that came out on Friday, students published an editorial called “Prior Review is Indirect Censorship” that denounced the decision. They wrote that this was the first time prior review has ever been required for the paper, and launched a Change.org petition to ask Martin to reconsider the policy. The petition, which was posted on Aug. 29, already has almost 600 signatures.

“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 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.”

Martin had directed student editors to submit the Beacon’s monthly issue and each story posted to the website, which is updated regularly, for pre-publication review. In the editorial, the editors said they were concerned that prior review would cause delays that would keep their content “from being as relevant as it could be.”

Rachel Page, the Beacon’s written content editor, said one of Martin’s main points when initially discussing the policy with the paper’s editors was that she didn’t want any incorrect or inflammatory information to reflect badly on her or to generate bad press.

“It’s a little ironic considering that she’s gotten bad press” for this policy, Page said.

In an interview, Page, Doherty and Malhotra said they took that to mean that she might not allow controversial content to go to print. In the past, the Beacon has published stories that “push the boundaries,” according to the editorial, like an article about a Wilson student who was a drug dealer.

“The story is raw, powerful, and important — and it would have been nearly impossible to create if an administrator had been checking over every word [editor Elias Benda] wrote,” the editorial said.

This wasn’t The Beacon’s first run-in with administrators. In 2012, the paper’s faculty adviser, Joe Riener, was fired and although he was told that it was because of his low teacher evaluation scores, Reiner and some student journalists suspected that administrators were more upset about the paper’s hard-hitting stories.

(Disclosure: Mary Stapp, a former Wilson teacher who volunteers as an adviser to the Beacon, is a board member of the SPLC.)

The 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier ruled that unless a high school newspaper had a clear “policy or practice” that established it as a public forum for student expression, school officials could pre-review and censor material as long as there was a reasonable educational justification.

But in Washington, D.C., high school student journalists have added legal protection against administrative censorship. According to 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 other.” Publication and distribution of a newspaper is listed as a protected activity.

The issue of high school press freedom has recently garnered national attention. Just last week, a high school newspaper in Michigan became a public forum with more editorial control given to the students, because of a principal’s recommendation — the same principal who had a policy of prior review the year before.

And after North Dakota passed an anti-Hazelwood law this spring that guaranteed the free-speech rights of student journalists in the state’s public schools and colleges, more states have been looking into the possibility of passing similar laws. (The Student Press Law Center tracks state-by-state laws and maintains relevant resources on its Cure Hazelwood page.)

Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will by email or at 202-833-4614.