British Prime Minister David Cameron found himself compared to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and other rulers of authoritarian Arab countries for proposing to “ban those suspected of planning criminal acts from using social media and other digital communication tools” after reports surfaced that rioters in London and other British cities had used Twitter, Blackberry messaging and other social media tools to organize violence. But BART — San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system — already went ahead and did a ”MuBARTek,” shutting off cell service at four “select” stations from 4:00pm to 7:00 pm last Thursday after learning that a protest under the “No Justice, No BART” banner might be held.
As it turned out, no protest was held, but BART still shut down the service, a move that could lead to unflattering comparisons of BART with the Chinese Communist government, who, after anonymous calls appeared on the Internet for a “Jasmine Revolution” inspired by the protests in the Middle East, flooded areas where demonstrations were to be held with police in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere.
As Al Jazeera reports, protesters had planned to demonstrate to condemn the killing of Charles Blair Hill, who was shot by BART police officers on July 3 after they received complaints about a drunken man. Eight days after Hill’s death, protesters shut down three BART stations Civic Center, Powell Street and 16th Street Mission stations July 11; trains drove through the stations without stopping. Police said that Hill had lunged at them with a knife; Hill was shot in the torso. BART transit officers already came under heavy criticism in 2009, after a white officer, Johannes Mehserle, shot an African-American man, Oscar Grant, while Grant was being restrained on the ground with his hands behind his back. Due to huge public outcry, the trial had to be held in Los Angeles; Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years.
In response to BART’s shutdown of cell service, the hacker group Anonymous launched a campaign, OpBART, to overwhelm it with faxes and emails. Posts also started to appear on Twitter with news of the shutdown using the hashtag #muBARTek, a “mash-up” of Mubarak’s name and BART.
As Al Jazeera says, BART has offered varying explanations, with possibly different legal ramifications, for how the shutdown was carried out:
In its first statement, BART said it had asked mobile service providers to stop their service. Then, a BART deputy police chief told the local online news outlet SF Appeal that BART turned off the services itself, as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers — Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. About the same time, BART changed its official statement — which was posted on its website – to say that “BART temporarily interrupted service.”
The full statement issued by BART officials can be read via the Washington Post and reads in part:
Organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police. A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators. BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.
Cell phone service was not interrupted outside BART stations. In addition, numerous BART Police officers and other BART personnel with radios were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity.
BART also stated that it “accommodates expressive activities that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution (expressive activity), and has made available certain areas of its property for expressive activity.” The statement also says that protest activities and assembling are not allowed in the paid areas of BART stations, “including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.”
Jamming mobile phones is illegal in the US but BART did not use jamming technology. BART has contracts with Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile for underground cell service; the four carriers are legally required to provide service as part of their contracts to operate. But BART simply shut down the service. Al Jazeera points out the murky legal waters BART has stepped into:
“This may well affect the legality of BART’s actions … but it doesn’t affect the impact,” said David Wagner, a computer science professor at the University of California – Berkeley who has written about wireless communications security. “In this day and age, deliberately disrupting cellphone service is dangerous to public safety, no matter how it is done.”
Jesse Choper, a professor at the Berkeley School of Law and a constitutional law expert, said BART could argue it had acted to preserve public safety rather than halt a protest but that blocking mobile services to entire areas may have obstructed more free speech than was necessary….
Any move to block a demonstration must satisfy four basic criteria, he said. It must be neutral on the content of the demonstration, serve a significant government interest, leave open an alternative venue, and be narrowly tailored to avoid restricting more free speech than is necessary, he said.
If he were arguing in BART’s defence, Choper said, he would say that the broad mobile phone blackout had not discriminated based on the content of the protest, that it served the significant interest of protecting public safety, and that protesters could still have demonstrated elsewhere, such as forming a picket line outside the stations.
But Choper also said that it could be argued that more service had been shut down than necessary.
Out here on the East Coast, there’s no cell service in the New York City subway and this is not likely to change in view of the accusations of obstructing free speech that BART now finds itself mired in. As San Francisco resident Patricia Shean said in SFGate:
“We don’t want the government turning off cell phones in Syria, and we don’t want them turning off cell phones here. We deal with things differently here.”
Or that is, we’d like to think we do.
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