In the wake of protests this summer that raised debate about First Amendment rights, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors is scheduled to discuss the latest draft of a policy that would allow BART to temporarily disrupt cellphone service.
The transit agency drew harsh criticism when officials disrupted cellphone service in August to prevent a protest from materializing. Now, the board will consider a policy that would allow the general manager to implement a temporary interruption to cellphone service if there is evidence that cellphones are being used to disrupt public transit services, destroy BART property or endanger commuters, amongst other reasons.
“I don’t think it’s right,” said Mario Carroll, a regular BART commuter. “You can’t mess with people’s right to protest. It can’t be legal.”
The Aug. 11 protest was organized by No Justice No BART, in response to the shooting of vagrant Charles Hill by BART police on July 3.
During the service shutdown, BART disabled the ability to use cellphones in downtown San Francisco stations when it learned that protesters were using cellphones to communicate the positions of BART police officers, said Bob Franklin, president of BART’s Board of Directors. This action prompted protests led by the group Anonymous that continued throughout the summer.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent an open letter to BART’s board of directors Aug. 22, urging them to adopt a policy of only shutting down cell service in “extraordinary circumstances.”
“The people of our state have the right to speak freely as Americans and as Californians,” the letter reads. “Our supreme court has long held that cutting-off telephone service can infringe upon the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
The newest draft of the policy differs from earlier versions in that it incorporates suggestions from the ACLU and BART’s Citizen Review Board, according to BART’s website.
“We sent out a draft and they submitted comments,” Franklin said. “We incorporated all of the ACLU’s comments and many of the citizen review board’s.”
Terrorist activities, facilitation of violent crimes, hostage situations and specific plans to substantially disrupt public transit services are all illustrative examples of “extraordinary circumstances” — instances in which cell service would be suspended, according to the proposed policy.
“It’s happened in Madrid. Cellphones were used to detonate bombs,” Franklin said. “Hopefully it doesn’t here, but we have to be prepared.”
To pass this legislation, the BART board of directors would require a simple majority.
“This draft goes a long way to protecting First Amendment rights,” Franklin said. “However, shutting down cell service is a necessary tool for BART to have.”