Transit agency head defends cell service shut-off

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The idea to cut wireless communications to quell a brewing protest _ a tactic that has put San Francisco’s subway system in the middle of a global free speech debate _ first came to the agency’s chief spokesman in the middle of the night.

Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesman Linton Johnson said Tuesday that he was lying awake early Thursday when he was struck by the thought of shutting off power to the agency’s wireless networks.

He sent an e-mail to BART police, who had asked employees for all ideas _ “good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional,” Johnson said.

BART Police Deputy Chief Ben Fairow responded that he liked the idea, and interim general manager Sherwood Wakeman, formerly the agency’s top lawyer, signed off on the plan, Johnson said.

BART’s board of directors was told of the tactic before 5 p.m. Thursday when it was deployed, he said.

The tactic is now at the center of a growing debate in the United States _ and around the world _ over whether BART officials acted properly to ensure commuter safety or overreached and violated free speech rights when it became the first U.S. governmental agency to shut off wireless service to disrupt protest.

The action has been compared unfavorably to Hosni Mubarek’s attempt to shut down the Internet in Egypt before protesters forced him from office.

On Tuesday, Johnson said he had no regrets and BART reserved the right to cut power again if faced with the same circumstances.

The agency kept the power on during a rowdy protest Monday that prompted the brief closure of four San Francisco stations during the evening commute.

Johnson said that’s because “the information we had Monday didn’t meet the constitutional standards” to cut communications like it did last week.

On Thursday, protest organizers posted instructions for the demonstration on websites and on Twitter, indicating more instructions would be issued electronically just before the demonstration was to start.

The demonstration was planned after BART police shot and killed Charles Hill, a 45-year-old transient, on July 3. BART police said he lunged at officers with a knife.

On Monday, organizers simply called for protesters to gather on the Civic Center station platform at 5 p.m. Cutting communications wouldn’t have helped police control the situation, Johnson said.

That demonstration was called in response to the communication cut last week. About 50 demonstrators massed on the platform with free speech signs chanting “no justice, no peace.” One protester was walking around with a toy phone shouting “can you hear me now.”

While Johnson’s idea has drawn criticism from some civil libertarians and free speech advocates, others inside and out of the agency supported the decision.

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