SF transit blocks cellphones to disrupt protest

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A decision by San Francisco Bay Area transit officials to cut off cell phone service at some of its stations to thwart a planned protest drew angry response Saturday from one transit board member who said she was shocked that officials acted as “this type of censor.”

Bay Area Rapid Transit officials have said they shut down power Thursday evening to cellular towers for stations stretching from downtown to the San Francisco’s airport after learning protesters planned to use mobile devices to coordinate its demonstration.

“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 board. “In my opinion, we’ve let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that’s not fair.”

BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow on Friday told KTVU-TV that the agency decided to turn off underground cell service because it received reports that a rowdy group that had protested in July had similar plans.

“It all boils down to the safety of the public,” Fairow said. “It wasn’t a decision made lightly. This wasn’t about free speech. It was about safety.”

To some, BART’s tactic drew comparisons to those of former president of Egypt to squelch protests demanding an end to his authoritarian rule. Authorities there cut Internet and cellphone services in the country for days earlier this year.

“BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said on its website.

Michael Risher, the American Civil Liberty Union’s Northern California staff attorney wrote in blog: “The government shouldn’t be in the business of cutting off the free flow of information. Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it’s halfway around the world or right here in San Francisco.”

The ACLU already has a scheduled meeting with BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey on Monday over other issues and Thursday’s incident will added to the agenda, spokeswoman Rebecca Farmer said Saturday.

Yet others said while the phone shut-down was worth examining, it may not have impinged on First Amendment rights. Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit educational organization, said freedom of expression can be limited in very narrow circumstances if there is an immediate threat to public safety.

“An agency like BART has to be held to a very high standard,” he said. “First of all, it has to be an immediate threat, not just the mere supposition that there might be one. And I think the response has to be what a court would consider reasonable, so it has to be the minimum amount of restraint on free expression.”

He said if BART’s actions are challenged, a court may look more favorably on what it did if expression was limited on a narrow basis for a specific area and time frame, instead of “just indiscriminately closing down cell phone service throughout the system or for a broad area.”

BART officials were confident the cellphone disruptions were legal. It said in a statement that it’s illegal to demonstrate on the platform or aboard the trains, and that it has set aside special areas for demonstrations.

“We had a commute that was safe and without disruption,” BART spokesman Jim Allison said Friday.

The demonstrators were going to hold a second protest over the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police on July 3 at the Civic Center/UN Plaza station in San Francisco. Hill was shot in the torso by officers responding to reports of a “wobbly drunk” The officers claim Hill came at them with a knife.

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