Where is The Line Between Public Safety, Free Speech, and the Right to Assemble?

As most of you have probably heard by now, BART had turned off cell towers in three stations in an attempt to stop a potential protest from taking place and being organized using cell phones and social media. A direct result of this announcement came the night after the original protest was planned via a far larger protest that resulted in public violence, property destruction, etc. (The irony here being that the original protest was practically non-existant and had been planned well in advanc, were the protest against the shut down of the cell towers was unplanned and viral.)

The SFGate did a great story on multiple issues of this entire event(s). SFGate Story on BART Cell Blockage

The summary goes a bit like this: Nobody wins. That’s right, nobody. On the one hand it seems clear that restricting a form of speech and communication is not exactly the right course of action, equally so, the destruction of property and impacts to the commuting public in SF is by no means the response.

So, I ask this for the consideration of GovLoopers: “For the sake of public safety, is it right to take action like BART did?” This is timely, given the on-going riots in London and throughout the Middle East. (London did the same thing in an attempt to quell rioters. Egypt, Syria, etc have as well, though “purpose” may have been drastically different…or was it?)

What is the right answer? Is there one? This by no means is an easy question, but with the up tick in recent events (even locally with the MD 7-11 flashmob.) What is the solution? Should there be a solution?

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Denise Petet

I don’t like the thought of a government agency just shutting off cell towers any time they think there’s an issue. This case in and of itself doesnt’ seem to bad, but it does set precedent for a controlling body to – for example – shut down cell towers to keep a secret or cover something up. it sets a precedent for an abuse of power.

that said…is shutting down the towers any worse than cordoning off a 3 block area to prevent protestors from gathering, citing unsafe conditions created by overcrowding? Or from setting a 2 block perimeter and limiting pedestrian and car traffic because the President is going to be outside some location and they want a security perimeter? Or if you thought there was an Oklahoma City style bomb in a truck and you shut down the towers to prevent the bad guys from calling the cell phone and detonating a bomb? (and for those that say calls for help would have been prevented too, they are right…however with that many phones in that tiny of a location the towers likely would have been overwhelmed anyway)

At its worst case scenario and as a precedent for abuse of power, it concerns me. As an effort to keep a repeat of the London Riots from happening…I can’t disagree with it. They were still able to assemble. Able to say what they wanted. they just weren’t allowed a world wide instant audience. (and that’s all free speech covers, the ability to say what you want when you want, it doesn’t provide a guarantee for an audience)

What I think can come out of this is a couple of things…for cell providers to differentiate between text and data messages and calls and perhaps the ability to turn off or limit one and not the other…to find a way to give calls to 911 preference and to kick off other callers to allow those to go through…and for some court to decide if ‘yelling fire in a crowded room’ is akin to ‘sending messages calling to civic disorder and chaos’. Because it can be easy to interpret those sending messages calling to riot as being no different than those screaming Fire in a crowded theater, which is not covered by free speech.

Chris Poirier

Thank you for your response @Denise. I think you nailed this, there are a lot of different things to consider when examining this topic:

1.) Counterterrorism vs protests/assemblies/riots (life safety vs. annoying protest is two very different issues)

2.) Pre-emptive vs reactive (this was pre-emptive, prior to laws being broken.)

3.) Who gets to make the call? (police? fire? local gov? state gov? federal gov? private business?)

4.) Another issue is if you pull the plug on towers you also take down the communication hub for law abiding citizens that may be calling for help in the impacted region.

See the article i posted below, police are flooding to this option and many decisions are about to be made quickly and without a lot of thought. Are we ready to deal with the results? What are the issues?

Stephanie Slade

Just like government can’t go in and turn off someone’s home phone service just because they’re suspected of using it to plan criminal activities, I don’t think government should be shutting down cell towers to prevent the potential for organized protests that could be destructive. There have to be better ways of dealing with issues like this one.

Chris Poirier

@Stephanie I would tend to agree, though when looked at via @denise’s comment of “how is it different then police setting up police lines in advance of a protest” it’s an interesting concept..as both are designed to limit the protest from becoming destructive. (I lean towards this being a bad idea, as our laws really only allow us to react to criminal activity, as it is not until the law is broken that a protest goes from a right to a crime..)

This is a tough topic, as mentioned. The flip side is London got a hold of their riots quickly once they shut towers down and limited digital communications. again, this was in response..but i fear will result in questions of “preventative use”

Chris Poirier

Also, if you look at the article I linked in the comments below, your point about police can’t cut off your phone at home..this is true, but they will now do what they can do to your home phone..monitor it to find out when you plan to do something illegal. however, with social media being public, there is no requirement for a warrant for police to monitor social media to track and attempt to prevent potentially dangerous riots/protests/etc.

Stephanie Slade

And I’m totally okay with police tapping your phone or monitoring your social media accounts if they have reasonable suspicion. Shutting down service is crossing the line.

Sharon Erickson

This really is a hard question. I am still a little divided. I do not understand why it is ok for someone to protest with violence, destroying someone property because they need to make a point. But if we start to allow the Government at any level to shut down service where does it stop? Once we allow shut downs it will be easier for the government to do it again. But I do understand the need to control violent acts

Peter Sperry

If violent protesters were actually arrested, prosocuted and incarcerated for appropriate lengths of time; there might be less of them and less motivation for government to infringe on the rights of everyone else. Western societies have adopted a catch and relaese policy toward violent protesters that has become counterproductive. Look at what happens during any meeting of the IMF, G20 etc. Seattle burned and DC has come close but none of these clowns are ever sent to prison. Now London has paid a price in lives for the lax example set in the past. It would also help if law enforcement started applying RICO statutes against the anti-globalist billionaires who have financed the travel expenses of some of the worst agitators.

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM

Definitely overkill by BART. All of the real issues have already been addressed by my fellow GovLoopers. I can add the issue of commerce and tourism. I would not be inclined to travel (and spend my money) in such a city. Travel sites such a CitySearch would buzz with this type of information. There’s also insult to injury. Who’s going to refund me for the time that my phone is unavailable? Sprint? California?

America just doesn’t work this way.

Just my thoughts