Photo by Daniel C. TsangInvoking Martin Luther King Jr., Danny Silverman describes his May 30 action at Foothill High School as a "nonviolent sit-in on the school Internet."
The 18-year-old, self-described geek had found a way around his Tustin school's Internet InterGate censorware. With access to Foothill's staff e-mail list, Silverman, then a senior, sent e-mails to his teachers, principals and Tustin Unified School District superintendent Dr. Peter C. Gorman to announce he'd bypassed the filtering system and struck a blow against censorship. For good measure, Silverman's e-mail cited former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."
Gorman, who was in his district office up the street from Foothill, reportedly freaked out. The school official immediately ordered the switch flipped on the campus server, causing a three-hour blackout on hundreds of computer screens across the district.
When the power came back on, Silverman was called out of calculus class and into Foothill principal Al Marzilli's office. Waiting there were school administrators and Silverman's father. Silverman insisted he was not a hacker and had done nothing wrong. Marzilli told him he could return to class, but for his protection and the school's, campus computers were now off-limits to him. Silverman's dad defended his son after he was sure the teen did not hack into the school computers but merely provided an alternative proxy server and website where web browsers could gain access to the unfiltered Internet.
"I didn't touch their computers in any way except to use their system to send an e-mail. . . . I made sure I didn't do anything to harm them. . . . All I did was give people a voice; I used my free-speech rights to send a message telling people how to use their free-speech rights," Silverman said.
It turned out to be an expensive message. The school billed him $157.02 to cover an administrator's three-hour "investigation" into whether the student had hacked into the district computers. Silverman refuses to pay. "Charging you for something you didn't do—it just kind of seems weird," he said.
Gorman did not return repeated requests for comment.
District spokesman Mark Eliot said Silverman is "an enterprising young man" who "was crossing the line." He said Silverman "violated the district e-mail. . . . Basically he misused distict resources."
He said Silverman "was put in a position of trust. He basically violated student computer-use policy, which every student had to sign." Eliot denied it was a fine, but rather an "invoice for administrative time to investigate his misuse of the district website."
Despite being barred from Foothill's PCs and kicked out of computer class until the end of the semester, Silverman managed to graduate in June. He also had all of his transcripts sent to prospective colleges before he sent the e-mail.
Under the Children's Internet Protection Act, a controversial federal law, all schools or libraries that receive federal funds for electronic access or computers are required by this November to install web filters, purportedly to screen out pornography, hate sites or what Silverman refers to as "dangerous subversity." He says a district administrator told him that "whatever he [the official] decides is appropriate is appropriate, and if he decides he doesn't like it, no one is allowed to read it."
A coalition of activist groups, including the American Library Association (www.ala.org/cipa/), has mounted court challenges against this latest attempt at Web censorship. Last month, a federal district court in Philadelphia denied the government's attempt to dismiss the library association's case.
Filtering has its drawbacks. Silverman was able to access the website of "God Hates Fags" (www.godhatesfags.com) from his school's computers, but not the website for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (www.glaad.org) nor that of Planned Parenthood (www.plannedparenthood.org).
"In our schools, we are not allowed to teach anything other than abstinence . . . so if someone could go on the Internet and find out about a thing called a condom, that would be bad," Silverman deadpanned.
Silverman urges other youths to take up the challenge for free Internet access. An unconventional Reform Jew—he doesn't believe in a supreme being—Silverman is against blocking access even to neo-Nazi sites. "Good teaching and good judgment have to be put in place," he says. "The best way to fight bad information is to put more information out there, not to put less."
Silverman worries about a growing "digital divide" between rich and poor. His family can afford to provide him with his own PC at home, but less fortunate students must rely on library or school computers outfitted with censorware. "The person who has the most access to information in this 21st century is really the person who's the most powerful," he said.
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Ironically, the reason Silverman had access to the staff e-mail list is because he was the webmaster for Foothill's home page, which still has links to articles he wrote while heading the school's computer club. (He also organized Foothill's Amnesty International chapter.) But a May 2000 essay in which Silverman editorialized that "Censorware Protects the Sanctity of Children . . . At a Price" has been censored. The webpage now carries this official explanation: "This article has been temporary [sic] removed by school personnell [sic] for the purpose of editing. It should be re-released shortly."
Silverman's now writing for much bigger fish. In June, a piece on his exploits titled "Censorship High" appeared on the online magazine Salon. That prompted hundreds of e-mails in support, including one reader who was "very impressed," another who called him "brave," and a third who found his writing "cogent, intelligent, succinct and generally, very damn good." One fellow techie wrote, "Don't let the bastards get you down." Computer-Using Educators Inc., an Alameda-based nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping educators integrate technology into the curriculum at all levels, has asked to reprint his Salon essay in its newsletter.
Silverman hopes to put Foothill High behind him. This fall, he'll enter Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he expects to minor in Internet studies and continue his work in such anti-censorship groups as Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) and Peacefire (peacefire.org). And he's currently developing a webzine, Mind.Wire (www.mindwire.org).
Hear Daniel C. Tsang's interview with Danny Silverman at falco.kuci.uci.edu/~dtsang/subversity/Sv010720.ram.