During 1994 I was Guest Coordinator for Prodigy Interactive Computer Services, responsible for scheduling experts on Prodigy’s Education Bulletin Board. As part of a barter arrangement, I utilized my education “connections” to help Prodigy develop their bulletin board business in exchange for complimentary use of the service. I was free to select any guest, as long as that guest was able to stimulate increased participation.
Prodigy’s Education Bulletin Boards are exercises in raw freedom. There is a cohesive network of community leaders posting expert testimony and information on questionable educational practices and reforms. As a mobilizing tool, the results can be powerful. When a Democratic Congress attempted to hide mandated teacher certification in an amendment to HR-6, for example, a publicly posted appeal on the Education Bulletin Board resulted in a national fax campaign contributing to the demise of the proposed amendment.
During July, 1994 I contacted U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s office requesting his September online appearance. Through a coordinated effort with Prodigy’s in-service staff, Secretary Riley agreed to appear — a major coup for Prodigy, and a tremendous plus for Prodigy’s two million members. But something happened.
In the middle of his appearance, and after record numbers of members posted questions to him, Riley’s office announced a delay in responding due to emergency prostate surgery. A sympathetic membership prayed for his recovery, and patiently awaited his return. In mid-October, Riley reappeared on the service. Instead of responding to questions, he asked participants for their opinions on the role that the federal government should assume in setting standards to advance education. It was a “loaded question” and one not readily accepted by members. Another torrent of participant response followed. By mid-November, with questions piling up, Riley had still failed to respond. This was uncharacteristic and unprecedented guest behavior. I had deliberately delayed scheduling another guest, trusting that Riley would eventually answer questions. He never did.
During early 1994 the American Federation of Teachers entered into an agreement with Prodigy to create a closed bulletin board for union teachers. The arrangement was curious. There was already an active network of teachers posting on a wide variety of topics in education. The AFT Bulletin Board was interpreted as an attempt to mitigate public dialogue between teachers, parents, and taxpayers.
Members privately and publicly began questioning the potential impacts of AFT’s bulletin board upon the Education Bulletin Board. Would Prodigy soon bend to the editorial biases of its paid sponsors? Would AFT attempt to influence the guest program?
When it was evident that Secretary Riley was not going to respond, I received e-mail from the Education Bulletin Board leader (sysop), a union teacher, regarding the lag in the guest program. I immediately contacted Hillsdale College President, George Roche, who I knew would offer a dynamic contrast to Riley’s attempt at framed debate regarding government involvement in education. I suggested that Dr. Roche write a special article for Prodigy members on the consequences of government control over education. Dr. Roche did precisely that. Delighted, I advised the sysop of this latest celebrity “coup.”
I did not anticipate the exchange which occurred between myself and the sysop.
The sysop me that several board participants had complained the guest program was not “broad based.” Posting activity resulting from the previously booked guests, however, gave no hint of dissatisfaction with the guest program. In addition, there was now a new guest policy in place. Guest biographies had to be submitted to Prodigy management. Management now required three weeks lead time to book guests. Finally, I was advised that other guests had been scheduled. I was not told who the guests were, nor was it suggested that Dr. Roche’s appearance would be scheduled in accordance with the new regulations. It became obvious to me that Dr. Roche was an unwanted guest.
That one of the country’s leading educators was not extended the courtesy of an explanation and that I was explicitly instructed to cancel his appearance, confirmed for me that online dialogue is vulnerable to First Amendment abuses. It remains unclear if Dr. Roche was rejected by the sysop or a pressure group now acting upon Prodigy. Who, I thought, could be so important as to take precedence over Dr. George Roche?
The sysop booked two successive January 1995 guests: Drs. Marian and Gary Manning, advocates for invented spelling and whole language reading instruction, and Cynthia Francis Gensheimer, author of Raising Funds For Your Child’s School: Over 60 Great Ideas for Parents & Teachers. Whole language is a hotly debated bulletin board topic. Parents vehemently reject it, and union teachers aggressively defend it. If increased posting activity is the measure of successful guest scheduling, the Mannings and Gensheimer appearances were resounding flops.
As the legitimacy and power of the online media is silently acknowledged and feared by teacher unions, hitherto unchallenged newspapers, career bureaucrats, and corrupt politicians alike, the attempt to influence and regulate online public bulletin boards will increase — in ways both blatant and subtle.
Meanwhile, stored inside my computer is a large file of questions posted by Prodigy participants which remain unanswered by Secretary Riley, and an unread article by Dr. George Roche. The army of keyboard revolutionaries has finally experienced two of the most sinister forms of censorship: calculated silence and the denial of alternative opinion.