The Wilson Beacon

Staff Editorial: Prior Review is Indirect Censorship


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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 change.org 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.

BY THE BEACON STAFF

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.  

GRAPHIC BY ELLICE ELLIS, OPINIONS EDITOR

9 Comments

9 Responses to “Staff Editorial: Prior Review is Indirect Censorship”

  1. Fataima Ahmad on August 29th, 2015 7:53 am

    Principal Martin needs to let these students run their paper without her interference. As a former journalist, and a mom to three DCPS kids, I support The Wilson Beacon’s position, and I hope the community does as well.

    [Reply]

  2. Michele Heller on August 29th, 2015 11:18 am

    Congratulations on an excellent editorial. You articulate important points. As a parent and a journalist, I have an additional concern with the principal’s decision to require prior review: it diminishes the educational value of the student-run newspaper. The paper is not only a mechanism for informing the Wilson and broader community, but it is also a learning tool and training ground for future journalists. Principal review of your work sets up an environment that is contrary to the skills student journalists need to learn to work in the real world of journalism, from publishing breaking news on deadline to having the backbone to stand up for your reporting. Beacon staff, I wish you all the best in using the power of the pen to overcome the inappropriate censorship that has been imposed on you.

    — Michele Heller

    [Reply]

  3. Joe Caulfield on August 29th, 2015 11:52 pm

    Your principal might stop and consider a couple things:
    1. Students cannot be expected to exercise free speech responsibly if they are not given the opportunity.
    2. If the principal reserves the right and responsibility of prior review and restraint, anything that goes wrong with the paper (inaccuracy, libel, poor taste) is entirely her fault, as she has appointed herself the final gatekeeper.

    Joe Caulfield
    Adviser, Blake (High School) Beat, Silver Spring, MD.

    [Reply]

  4. Rika on August 30th, 2015 7:57 pm

    I fully support your efforts. Student journalists will never get a feel for “real world” journalism if it must go through prior administrative review. There is no doubt that prior review is a form of restraint which, as you correctly identify, is a critical issue in journalism. Lest we forget, Richard Nixon attempted such “prior review” as President of the United States. While yours is a school publication, the principle remains the same. The principal of your school has incorrectly identified her responsibility, as well as the role of journalism.

    Good luck in your efforts. We have enough attempts at stifling free press in this country. I admire your work on this issue and look forward to hearing of the outcome.

    [Reply]

  5. Kathy Schrier on August 31st, 2015 12:29 am

    Prior review is the gateway drug to censorship. Administrators who insist on conducting prior review make themselves legally responsible for every word on every page in every edition. Student journalists are being told, “The content of student media no longer belongs to you; you are no longer responsible for it; we, the administrators, are.”
    Should something slip through, administrators and their school district become 100% liable for all content. When students have a history of making content decisions and the student media is, in practice and/or by policy, an open forum, the school district will not be held legally responsible for content.
    What principal would want to put themselves in such a position? It makes no sense whatsoever.

    [Reply]

  6. Jeff Schmidt on August 31st, 2015 11:20 am

    If Kimberly Martin does not withdraw her repressive measure, then students should exercise their right to print and publish at their own expense the censored articles, paragraphs or sentences. That way, Martin’s attempts to suppress facts or viewpoints will backfire.

    — Jeff Schmidt, father of 2015 Wilson graduate and author of Disciplined Minds, [email protected]

    [Reply]

  7. Patricia Fels on August 31st, 2015 11:28 pm

    Impressive editorial! As a newspaper adviser, I have been incredibly lucky never to have had a headmaster who insisted on prior review. Here’s hoping the principal pays attention to your compelling arguments.

    [Reply]

  8. Hallie on September 1st, 2015 12:29 am

    Tonight I have read comments, assumptions, and assertions that either insinuate or scream out that Kim Martin does not trust her students’ abilities to print The Beacon. Many have unkindly judged, and many have been simply rude. How many of you have stopped one step short of the bandwagon to consider that she is a kind, fair-minded principal, mom, and woman. Talk. Listen. And above all else, be kind.

    [Reply]

  9. Richard E. Buzbee on September 1st, 2015 11:29 am

    Prior restraint is an affront to the foundations of the nation and to education itself. It is an abiding insult to students, parents, and all who believe in the virtues of freedom, responsibility, and integrity.

    [Reply]

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Staff Editorial: Prior Review is Indirect Censorship