San Francisco’s BART shuts down cell phones

August 13, 2011

San Francisco's BART shuts down cell phonesThe problem with cell phones is that it is easy to disrupt calls.  Egypt did it during their recent revolution and San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system did on Thursday for the same reasons.  While social media has been used to organize birthdays, garden clubs, and flash mobs, it has also been used to organize protests and insurrection.

On Thursday, ABC local news in San Francisco reported that BART had gotten wind of planned protests for Thursday and Friday.  The protests were planned in response to a BART police shooting of resident Charles Hill in July.  A previous protest on July 11, 2011 resulted in train disruptions and multiple arrests.

According to Adweek and AP, the threatened protests were thwarted when BART shut down cell phone towers in four of their stations.  BART officials claimed that they had the right to do so because it is illegal to protest on trains, train platforms and outside of designated areas inside the stations.  It was essentially the same rationale that the Egyptian government used to shut down social media and the Internet during the protests that toppled the government earlier this year.

Under the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution people, including BART riders have certain rights that are guaranteed.

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, …. or the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . .

According to previous Supreme Court cases on the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, and freedom to associate, the government and other organizations have the right to limit protests with reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner.  Shutting down cell phone service could be argued as a violation of this holding.

I don’t know which is worse.  The fact that we have become so dependent on our access to the internet and social media through computers and cell phones that when we lose contact we can’t function or that BART felt it had the power to interfere in our First Amendment rights to speech and association.  If BART feels so empowered, then what is to stop other organizations, local, state and federal governments from doing the exact same thing.

It is much easier to disrupt communication these days because people are relying more and more on cell phones.  Many people no longer have a landline telephone service that can be used in place of their cell.  People should have the right to make phone calls.  How many people were unable to check on sick relatives and friends, make sure their children had gotten home safely, check for last minute changes to dinner plans, or business meetings? 

Most of the people using BART on Thursday and Friday were simply going about their lives as usual.  Interrupting their ability to call family, friends and business colleagues should not have happened.  Even if some people were using cell phones for organizing a riot, there were other ways of disrupting their plans and limiting their protest than cutting phone service off to everyone. 

Our reliance on technology has both empowered and crippled us.  We need to make sure that we don’t lose our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly because others feel justified in limiting our access to technology.

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