San Francisco's mass-transit authority shuts down cellphone service to quell protests, only to incite a louder outcry
Last Thursday, San Francisco's mass-transit system (BART) shut down cell phone service during the evening commute in order to thwart a planned protest. The hacking collective Anonymous took over the site mybart.org and shared users' contact info in retaliation.
Now, in advance of more protests expected tonight, BART says it cannot rule out shutting down cell phone service again. BART owns the network that enables cell phones on station platforms and in trains.
Linton Johnson, the communications officer credited with the idea of cutting service, said, "We survived for years without cellphone service. Now they're bitching and complaining that we turned it off for three hours?"
Johnson said elsewhere that people's criticisms of BART's decision were misguided. "The fact that people want to focus on the cellphone service, I think it's an interesting argument, but people are forgetting the other constitutional right that allows government agencies to put people's right to safety ahead of their right of expression," he said. "We are allowed to designate the time, place and manner of free speech."
This argument has dubious Constitutional merits. The Supreme Court has traditionally been of the view that political speech deserves the highest level of protection, because it plays a vital role in the workings of government. A protest against a local transit authority in response to a fatal shooting, as the BART protests were, would in all likelihood fall under that rubric.
The Twitter tag #MuBARTak makes the obvious comparison with concision. Perhaps BART missed the news coming out of Egypt, but shutting down people's access to communications technology has not been a winning strategy.