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Principal to Wilson High School Newspaper: I’m Your Editor, Now

Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

The students who run the Beacon, the campus newspaper at Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest DC, opened the new academic year with a chilling demand from their new prinicipal, Kimberly Martin. In one of her first moves on the job, Martin informed the Beacon‘s editors that she will be exercising prior review of the paper’s content before it goes to press, a move that the students believe presents a layer of censorship.

High-school administrators are legally permitted to review student publications before they run, but the Beacon had never been subjected to this kind of oversight since it started publishing in 1935, its current editors say.

The Beacon complied begrudgingly with Martin’s request on the new academic year’s first issue, which was distributed last Friday. The paper’s editors-in-chief, seniors Helen Malhotra and Erin Doherty, say Martin didn’t make any changes. But on Thursday night, with the final pages going to the printer, the Beacon tacked on a blistering editorial slamming the new regime.

“Martin’s insistence on prior review demonstrates that she does not trust our ability to produce a quality newspaper,” the editorial reads. “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.”

Most Beacon content is the kind of non-inflammatory stuff one expects to find in a high-school newspaper: profiles of students, teacher-retirement news, varsity-sports results, and sidebars filled with teen-facing jargon. But the Beacon, which runs once a month during the school year and posts about five online articles every week, also has a legacy of reporting that sometimes rankles school administrators, like a February 2014 profile of a Wilson student with a budding career as a marijuana 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 [writer Elias] Benda wrote,” the editorial reads.

The drug-dealer story upset Wilson and DC Public Schools officials, but it was allowed to print. Malhotra and Doherty worry that Martin’s direct supervision might prevent similarly enticing articles in the future.

“We feel writers will be less inclined to write boundary-pressing articles that the Beacon is famous for,” Malhotra says in a phone interview. “We don’t want our writers to stop writing those and self-censoring themselves because somebody’s going to be watching over our backs.”

Martin’s predecessor, Pete Cahall, took a more hands-off approach toward the Beacon, which has faculty advisers. But Martin is used to more direct involvement with student newspapers. She exercised prior review at her previous job as the principal of a high school in Aspen, Colorado, and carried it over to Wilson this year. And DC Public Schools has no problem with it.

As unsettling as prior review is to the Beacon‘s editors, Martin is on firm legal ground in demanding a pre-publication read of the newspaper’s content. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Missouri high-school principal who spiked student-written articles about divorcing parents and teen pregnancy. A school must also retain the authority to refuse to sponsor student speech that might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex, or conduct otherwise inconsistent with ‘the shared values of a civilized social order,’ ” Justice Byron White wrote in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

While ideally the Hazelwood opinion is acted on seldomly, if ever, it does give school administrators an avenue to intervene in student publications, sometimes with infuriating results. In March 2014, students who produced the yearbook at Sheridan High School in Arkansas were forced to cut a page featuring a gay student’s coming-out story. School administrators claimed to be protecting the student from repercussions, but that defense came off as rather opaque considering the student’s sexuality was already public knowledge in the school’s community. And even though Arkansas has a state law protecting the independence of student publications, the Hazelwood ruling trumps any local authority.

“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 says in a statement released by DCPS. “Keeping students safe and protected are parts of my job that I take very seriously.”

Doherty says Wilson students are siding with the Beacon, as are the paper’s faculty advisers. “It was shocking to the whole Wilson community,” she says.

For now, though, the Beacon’s staff is complying with Martin’s demand, but in considerable protest. The editors set up a Change.org petition that has already gathered nearly 500 signatures from students, alumni, and parents. Moreover, their editorial closes with a bit of advice for Martin if she is so keen on running a newspaper.

“If Principal Martin wishes to publish her own newspaper representing the Wilson administration rather than the student body, she can,” it reads. “We won’t ask for prior review.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.