New BART protests could test emerging policy on cell service shutdowns
After criticism from civil libertarians and First Amendment scholars, BART says it will consider a policy of shutting down cellular service only in an 'extreme case.' But what is an extreme case?
A third consecutive Monday of protests against the Bay Area Rapid Transit system will test BART's emerging policy on how to balance public safety with free speech.Skip to next paragraph
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Activists have rallied against BART to protest the fatal shooting of a homeless man with a knife on July 3 by security. But the protests took a digital-age twist when BART shut off its cellular network on on Aug. 11 to prevent protesters from using their smartphones to organize.
Now, after harsh criticism from civil libertarians and First Amendment scholars, BART has suggested that it will consider a policy of shutting down its cellular service only in an "extreme case."
What, exactly, constitutes an extreme case, however, remains unclear – even among legal scholars. Many are looking to the ongoing protests tonight and into the future in hopes of seeing how BART might respond.
At a time when groups of young people from London riots to American "flash robs" are using mobile technology in disruptive – and sometimes illegal – ways, the legal issues involved in the BART situation could resonate far beyond the Bay Area.
BART officials are warning commuters they may shut down stations in San Francisco Monday, with a demonstration set for 5 p.m. Pacific time at Civic Center Station.
But the anticipated showdown of cellular service might not develop Monday. Organizers affiliated with the hacker group Anonymous, who are calling for the protest, are asking demonstrators to take a less disruptive approach by staying off train platforms and out of busy Market Street.
Still, the controversy over BART's decision to cut cell service on Aug. 11 continues to unfold. In response to pressure, BART held a three-hour hearing on Aug. 24 in an effort to craft a formal public policy that walks the line between protecting citizen safety and unfairly stifling free speech.
BART board president Bob Franklin asked his staff for a policy that reflected the concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment advocates that would allow for a disruption of cell service only if there is “an extreme case when our passengers are imminently at risk,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
But defining “imminent risk” is a challenge, scholars say.