- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - An illegal, Orwellian violation of free-speech rights? Or just a smart tactic to protect train passengers from rowdy would-be demonstrators during a busy evening commute?

The question resonated Saturday in San Francisco and beyond as details emerged of Bay Area Rapid Transit officials’ decision to cut off underground cellphone service for a few hours at several stations Thursday. Commuters at stations from downtown to near the city’s main airport were affected as BART officials sought to tactically thwart a planned protest over the recent fatal shooting of a 45-year-old man by transit police.

Two days later, the move had civil rights and legal experts questioning the agency’s move, and drew backlash from one transit board member who was taken aback by the decision.

“I’m just shocked that they didn’t think about the implications of this. We really don’t have the right to be this type of censor,” said Lynette Sweet, who serves on BART’s board of directors. “In my opinion, we’ve let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that’s not fair.”


Similar questions of censorship have arisen in recent days as Britain's government put the idea of curbing social media services on the table in response to several nights of widespread looting and violence in London and other English cities. Police claim that young criminals used Twitter and Blackberry instant messages to coordinate looting sprees in riots.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government, spy agencies and the communications industry are looking at whether there should be limits on the use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook or services like BlackBerry Messenger to spread disorder. The suggestions have met with outrage _ with some critics comparing Cameron to the despots ousted during the Arab Spring.

In the San Francisco instance, Sweet said BART board members were told by the agency of its decision during the closed portion of its meeting Thursday afternoon, less than three hours before the protest was scheduled to start.

“It was almost like an afterthought,” Sweet told The Associated Press. “This is a land of free speech and for us to think we can do that shows we’ve grown well beyond the business of what we’re supposed to be doing and that’s providing transportation. Not censorship.”

But there are nuances to consider, including under what conditions, if any, an agency like BART can act to deny the public access to a form of communication _ and essentially decide that a perceived threat to public safety trumps free speech.

These situations are largely new ones, of course. A couple of decades ago, during the fax-machine and pay-phone era, the notion of people organizing mass gatherings in real time on wireless devices would have been fantasy.

BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow said the issue boiled down to the public’s well-being.

“It wasn’t a decision made lightly. This wasn’t about free speech. It was about safety,” Fairow told KTVU-TV on Friday.

BART spokesman Jim Allison maintained that the cellphone disruptions were legal as the agency owns the property and infrastructure. He added while they didn’t need the permission of cellphone carriers to temporarily cut service, they notified them as a courtesy.

The decision was made after agency officials saw details about the protest on an organizer’s website. He said the agency had extra staff and officers aboard trains during that time for anybody who wanted to report an emergency, as well as courtesy phones on station platforms.

“I think the entire argument is that some people think it created an unsafe situation is faulty logic,” Allison said. “BART had operated for 35 years without cellphone service and no one ever suggested back then that a lack of it made it difficult to report emergencies and we had the same infrastructure in place.”

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