California’s public transit system BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) found itself under fire this past August after officials shut down cell service at four stations. BART managers had learned that a protest under the “No Justice, No BART” banner might be held to condemn the killing of Charles Blair Hill, who was shot by BART police officers on July 3 after there had been complaints about a drunken man. Saying that they were worried that protesters might chain themselves to objects within the stations, BART officials turned off cell service, only to find themselves compared to Middle Eastern dictators including ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and also the Chinese Communist government and accused of violating First Amendment rights.
In the wake of all this controversy, the BART board has adopted a policy that states when and how it may shut down the antennas that provide cell service to subterranean stations. Under this new policy, BART says that its managers have the right to shut down cell service when ”there is strong evidence of imminent lawful activity that threatens the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public,” among other things. BART is to limit shutting down cell service to “areas and time periods where it is needed.” The general manager and specific designated persons and a process are to make the decisions about using such a tactic in “extraordinary circumstances,” namely when cell phones are being used as
“instrumentalities in explosives; to facilitate violent criminal activity or endanger District passengers, employees or other members of the public such as hostage situations; and to facilitate specific plans or attempts to destroy District property or substantially disrupt public transit services.”
The Federal Communications Commission — which became interested because, in many cases, disrupting telecommunications service is against the law — gave last-minute suggestions, asking BART to include wording that “recognizes that any interruption of cell phone service poses serious risks to public safety” and also a section requiring “a determination that the public safety benefits outweigh the public safety risks of an interruption.” While BART counsel Matthew Burrows included the FCC’s statements “verbatim,” BART board president Bob Franklin said that doing so was “not an endorsement.”
Franklin also said that the BART board had consulted with the American Civil Liberties Union about the language of the policy. Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said the group will continue to monitor BART to see that it actually implements its own new policy. As Lye said,
“You don’t preemptively shut down a protest even though there might be police action.”
Indeed: We should all be at least somewhat concerned that a public transit agency now has “an official policy about when to prevent its users from accessing communication networks”; about when that agency can turn off and off users’ ability to communicate.
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Photo by Pierre LaScott