Free to dial

BAY AREA ISSUES: Cutting cellphone service was an inappropriate and outrageous response by BART to ongoing protests.

The so-called Arab spring brought images of protesters using social media and handheld electronic devices and clashing with totalitarian governments. News of curfews and Internet connection disruptions escaped the fray, and the world watched in disgust as governments interrupted citizens’ attempts at free speech.

Those stories were always foreign, and as Americans many of us could not imagine such an infringement on our basic right to free speech. But on Aug. 11, a protest organized by the group Anonymous brought similar though less severe feelings of infringement to the Bay Area. BART — the public Bay Area transit system — disabled underground cellphone service to prevent more protests. This is an affront to citizens’ rights protected by the First Amendment and is as outrageous as it is unfathomable.

Though the police and BART workers did this in order to try to maintain transportation service for average commuters, cutting basic lines of communication should never have been considered. Maintaining an expected level of service is an insufficient reason for abusing the trust of patrons and citizens. This is not Iran, Egypt or Syria; this is the United States of America, and we cannot tolerate this violation of free speech.

BART has set a terrible precedent for its response to future protests, and at a volatile time in American history, an even more disconcerting precedent for government reactions to civil unrest. The Bay Area community must unite in a message of disapproval over this action.

BART cannot make assault on freedom of speech standard policy. A small protest might be a nuisance for average commuters, but cutting off basic lines of communication is hardly an appropriate response. Since the 1960s, the Bay Area has hosted a number of demonstrations, making it a reasonable assumption that officials know how to properly react. Unfortunately, Aug. 11 proved that assumption wrong.

Freedom of speech is more than an ideal — it is a standard that generations before have fought to maintain, on campus and overseas. We cannot fail the legacy of Mario Savio but should draw inspiration from the movement he spearheaded. To limit expression is to limit freedom, and it is time once again to protect that most basic right.