There’s one common denominator in the phenomena of relatively harmless flash mobs, massive national protests that upend authoritarian regimes and rioting in the streets of London: cell phone communication, whether it’s through calls, texts, message services, Twitter or Facebook, brought together huge numbers of people. This can be a force for good, destruction or goofy fun, but there’s little doubt that fast and reliable cell phone communication can rally thousands, or even millions, to action. This takes us to a conflict over the use of cell phones from San Francisco where First Amendment rights and public safety concerns have clashed. The Bay Area Rapid Transit police force—otherwise known as BART, the subway system connecting San Francisco to the rest of the Bay Area—has had a rough few years. First was the seemingly unprovoked killing of Oscar Grant on New Year’s morning in 2009 by a BART officer who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter; then on July 3rd of this year another man was killed by BART police on a train platform as he was attempting to throw a knife at the officer.
One protest over the actions of BART police already broke out on July 11, resulting in service interruptions to trains and several arrests, and another protest was scheduled for last Thursday. In order to squelch the protest before it could begin BART authorities decided to shut down cell phone signals at all BART stations, making it impossible for protesters to get organized at the underground stations. BART claims that public safety comes before the rights of protesters, and that nothing stopped protests from happening outside of BART stations. First Amendment advocates worry about the precedent of shutting down cell phones to quell free speech. Which side do you choose?
Bob Franklin, president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Board of Directors
Linda Lye, staff attorney with ACLU Northern California