BART Reserves the Right To Shut Off Cell Service

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


Colin G.
Colin G6 years ago

Hi. Colin Gallagher here again, as member of Families of Sept. 11 and Voices of Sept. 11. On twitter, I am @pcvcolin and I recommend you follow me there. Some users here have left comments more or less saying "It's their system, they can turn it off at will," other comments I've seen in a similar vein. I want to correct that sentiment by stating that the August 11, 2011 cell shutoffs by SFBART were illegal, pursuant to the Communications Act, Telecommunications Act, and to the 1st Amendment. You can see a formal petition (mine) pursuant to FCC Rule 1.2 that has been filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on this matter and was received by the FCC on Sept. 9, here: An organization, @publicknowledge filed a petition with the FCC before me that is similar to mine, you can read theirs here: In addition, I urge you to read and sign the following Care2 petition:

Cynthia Jackson
Cynthia Jackson6 years ago

Unbelieveable that another service is under police control.

Lynne B.
Lynne Buckley6 years ago

BART's decision could leave a lot of people in difficult and dangerous situations if they do shut down cell service, as has already been proven. They should reconsider.

David Anderson
David Anderson6 years ago

Terry K.
8:28pm PST on Dec 7, 2011
It's their system... They can turn it off at will!

This is the foundation of our surplus of government malfeasance. It is not their system--it belongs to the taxpayers and fare-payers who pay for it. The problem here is a microcosm of the 537 morons inside the Washington beltway who think that the government is their property.

Penny C.
penny C6 years ago


Terry King
Terry King6 years ago

It's their system... They can turn it off at will!

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

Makes me glad I don't own one of them. They seem to me to make you quite vulnerable to all this spy and control stuff happening in this country.

Sheri Schongold
Sheri Schongold6 years ago

Big Brother strikes again.

Claire M.
Claire M6 years ago

This is what happens when agencies that should be public controlled are run by private entities. After things like this the inch to a mile effect begins to show up as well, so expect this and more in the future.

Cheryl H.
Cheryl H6 years ago

Welcome to America 2011, where civil rights are becoming civil priviledges if the authorities are in the mood to be nice.