Natalie Southwick
September 02, 2015 7:00 am

School has barely started, but the students at one Washington, D.C. high school are already getting a hands-on lesson in journalism ethics and First Amendment rights.

The student journalists at Wilson High School are protesting a new policy that allows the school’s principal to review all of the content in the Beacon, the school newspaper, before it goes to publication.

The Washington Post reported that Wilson Principal Kimberly Martin informed the Beacon staff early last week that students would be required to show her advance copies of all articles slated for publication in the print newspaper and on its web site.

Students at the Northwest D.C. school quickly protested the move as censorship. The staff published a passionate editorial saying they “staunchly oppose” the move, adding that the prior review policy would prevent them from being able to freely represent the diverse views and opinions of the school’s 1,600 students.

“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.”

They also created a Change.org petition calling on Martin to reconsider her policy, which has gathered 820 signatures to date.

Wilson senior Erin Doherty, 17, who is co-editor of the Beacon, told The Post the staff was “shocked” when Martin informed them of the new policy on the second day of classes.

“We weren’t expecting it at all,” she said.

“I was super shocked, because the Beacon has had a history of no prior review. My stomach kind of sunk,” she told American University’s WAMU radio station.

Martin, who told students she had implemented similar policies in her previous stints as principal in Aspen, Colorado, and elsewhere in the U.S., said in a statement that she hoped the prior review policy would help students learn how to publish the most professional newspaper possible.

On Monday, after the story first broke in The Post and other media outlets, Martin told students she would be willing to reconsider the prior-review policy if Beacon editors agreed to clarify their editorial policies to ensure accountability and accuracy in reporting and quotes used in articles. The editorial staff say this process is already underway and the student reporters hope to come to an agreement with Martin that would discount prior review.

While the students have plenty of moral justification for their claim of censorship, Martin’s practice of prior review is not actually breaking any laws and is used in many schools across the country.

D.C. Public Schools policy allows each individual principal to make decisions about student publications at his or her school, with the goal of ensuring that students don’t run into any legal problems for content they publish. A Supreme Court decision in 1988 also permitted the use of prior review by principals and other school administrators, ruling that administrations have a stake in the quality of the content published in school newspapers.

Still, even though it’s not uncommon, prior review is still controversial, with many teens arguing that the practice infringes on their right to free speech under the First Amendment and effectively amounts to censorship. The debate has cropped up again and again, in schools from New Jersey to California, and doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon, as long as high school students continue to fight for the right to express themselves without someone looking over their shoulder.

(Image via Warner Bros. Television.)

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