BART puts social media crackdown in 'uncharted' legal territory
The decision by BART officials to cut cellphone service Thursday – denying train-riding protesters access to social media – raises deep legal questions, analysts say.
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The criticism from First Amendment scholars has been fierce.Skip to next paragraph
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“The BART action to restrict free speech so that the actions of a few could be curtailed is not warranted,” says Rita Kirk, director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “In fact, the very medium they tried to curtail has been used in Great Britain to bring thugs to justice.
"We will never be able to silence the voices of those who feel the need to express themselves despite the efforts of government to stop them," she adds. "Instead, we must affirm the wisdom of the Supreme Court when it held that the best defense against bad speech is more speech.”
"It's quite clear where the line should be drawn: You cannot limit the rights of law-abiding citizens in an attempt to stop criminal activity," says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media” and a professor at Fordham University in New York. "BART's stopping of cellphone service is a distressing step away from the Bill of Rights toward a totalitarian society. This is a bigger disturbance of the peace than caused by the flash mobs."
The potential legal issues in the case include: how reasonable law enforcement responses were, and what were available alternatives on both sides.
While many legal scholars say BART went too far, they stop short of agreeing with protesters that the government should be compared to those in the Mideast.
“While this is distressing, it is very clear that this is not Egypt,” says Professor Choper. “Over there, they just cut off all protest together, here [BART] was just telling protesters, ‘Hey, you can’t disrupt these platforms and delay these trains.’ You don’t have a right to speak in any place and any time. You can’t have a protest on the Bay Bridge during rush hour.”
IN PICTURES: Flash mobs