In order to subvert planned demonstrations over a shooting by transit police, San Francisco transit officials blocked cell phone reception in train stations for three hours last Thursday.
Officials with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, confirmed on Friday that they had shut down electrical power to cellular towers in four stations during rush hour, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The purpose of the blackout was to disrupt protesters’ plans to use mobile devices to coordinate a demonstration on train platforms.
BART officials insist their tactics were legal because they thwarted a protest in a station, which is not. The only flaw in that argument is that the transit authority’s actions constitute a clear violation of the First Amendment rights, not just of protesters but of uninvolved citizens who were merely trying to get home at the end of a workday.
The demonstrators were protesting the July 3 shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police, who maintain that Hill came at them with a knife. In a statement on its website, BART voiced concerns over the potential dangers of staging a demonstration on a moving train or a station platform:
A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators.
But in its efforts to defuse a dangerous situation, BART was inadvertently creating another one. As one commuter told PCWorld, the decision to disable mobile phone service prevented passengers from calling police or the fire department in case of an emergency.
The day after the planned demonstration, which failed, BART spokesman Jim Allison boasted to reporters, “We had a commute that was safe and without disruption.”
Maybe so, but at what cost to personal freedoms?
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