BART’s cell phone shutdown raises First Amendment questions

Bay Area Rapid Transit (CA) shut down four downtown San Francisco stations on Monday night to disperse a protest over its decision to curtail cell phone access on its platforms last week; Muni services were also affected by the shutdowns. No one was injured or arrested, cell service stayed on, and all stations re-opened by 7:30 PM.

At issue was BARTs decision to interrupt wireless access at selected stations last Thursday as a safety measure in anticipation of a planned protest about a July fatal shooting by BART police. The action seemingly backfired as public concerns quickly shifted from passenger safety to free speech. BART said that its rules prohibit assemblies or demonstrations inside its fare gates. “The paid areas are for people getting on and off trains,” said spokesman Jim Allison. “Allowing a free rein of activities in that area would present an unreasonable danger.” But critics — ranging from BART board members to the American Civil Liberties Union — argued otherwise. “This is one where we can almost say we’re stuck on stupid,” said board member Lynette Sweet. “We put ourselves on the radar screen for no good reason. This is a country that champions civil liberties all the time. So why would a transit agency take it upon themselves to trample on civil liberties?” Link to full story in San Francisco Chronicle.

In a related story, BBC News compared BART’s situation to a recent statement by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who suggested blocking social networks during times of civil unrest. Cameron was reacting to reports that some of the recent looting and violence in London was coordinated through social media and instant messaging.

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