Staff Editorial: Prior Review is Indirect Censorship



UPDATE: Sep 17, 2015— The Beacon is once again operating without prior review! We would like thank the 885 people who signed our petition on for their support.

UPDATE: Aug 31, 2015 — As of 3 p.m.: Principal Martin is in the process of reconsidering her prior review policy. The editors are revisiting their editorial policies to instate a clearly outlined chain of responsibilities and verify quotes in all 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.


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. 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. High school administrators are legally allowed to preview newspapers before publication, but this is this first time that prior review has been required for The Beacon. And as committed journalists, we staunchly oppose it.

After having positive interactions with Ms. Martin before the start of the school year, we were disappointed when she informed us of this development. We looked forward to another year of freely reporting on events and issues that relate to the Wilson student body, and building a strong, mutually-trusting relationship with our new principal. Even when Martin first asked for prior review, we thought that if we explained The Beacon’s mission and role in the community, she would understand that prior review would be detrimental to our success as a news organization. Unfortunately, even after we presented valid reasons as to why the policy is ineffective and intimidating, she insisted that from now on The Beacon will have to comply with her rule.

Prior review is problematic for a number of reasons, the simplest of which is that it is inefficient for a newspaper that produces as much content as The Beacon does. Not only has Martin requested that we send each issue to her before publication, but she also wants us to send her all web articles before posting them online. The Beacon website was created to share news quickly and keep our student body informed. 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. Even a small delay would keep our content from being as relevant as it could be.

Martin’s insistence on prior review demonstrates that she does not trust our ability to produce a quality newspaper. She explained that she worries that if The Beacon publishes inflammatory or incorrect information, it will reflect badly on her. But as student journalists with committed and experienced advisers, we hold ourselves accountable for our content. We don’t claim to be perfect, but when we make mistakes, we take responsibility and correct the information. Prior review takes away a crucial step in the journalism process: the step where we learn how to deal with mess-ups and complaints.

The Beacon is not the administration’s newspaper. We aren’t afraid to criticize Wilson policies, from the dress code to decisions about student government elections. When we write about contentious topics, it’s with the understanding that our opinions don’t represent the beliefs held by the administration – rather, we’re here to represent the opinions of the student body.

Prior review would make the administration responsible for a paper they take no part in producing: if we were to publish something that got the paper into trouble, Martin would be held more accountable for the mistake than she would if she received the paper at the same time as everyone else.

Above all, The Beacon is for and by the students of Wilson. It is and always has been an outlet for our voices and diverse opinions to be shared without fear of censorship. 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. We love how so many students get excited when they’re quoted or see their own names in a byline. We don’t want that to change because people are afraid to express their authentic opinions.

Besides, the paper would be boring if we didn’t report on controversial issues for fear of ruffling feathers. In our experience, the best and most memorable articles are often the ones that push the boundaries. Last fall, former opinions editor Elias Benda won a certificate of merit from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association for an article he wrote about a day in the life of an anonymous drug dealer, a story that some Wilson and DCPS administrators took issue with. 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 Benda 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. But The Beacon is our paper and our responsibility, and while Martin is our principal, she is not our editor.