BART erred when it disrupted its patrons’ wireless service
In the July edition of Urgent Communications, which ships to the printer next week, Senior Editor Mary Rose Roberts explores the decision made by the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit district, or BART, to block commercial wireless signals in some of its facilities. This happened earlier this year after a BART police officer shot a homeless man. In the aftermath of that event, protest groups planned to descend upon the city to voice their concerns — and allegedly to disrupt BART services. As Roberts reports, the transit agency attempted to disrupt the protesters by cutting off their ability to communicate.
The FCC was concerned enough about this incident that it opened a notice of inquiry and sought public comments. BART officials justified their decision in part by claiming that the protests would put the public's safety at risk; indeed, according to Roberts, they claimed to have "credible information that the protesters planned lawless activities" that would put patrons at risk. This was no small concern, as BART is the fifth-busiest rapid-transit system in the country, averaging 375,000 riders each weekday. Meanwhile, opponents of the action claimed that it violated myriad First Amendment protections.
As a journalist, I am a staunch proponent of the First Amendment, which among other things guarantees the right to peacefully assemble. But I don't see this as a First Amendment issue as much as I see it as a public-safety issue — though not in the context established by BART.
BART officials claim that the safety of the public — and of the protestors — was at the forefront of their thinking. But I wonder how much thought they gave to expectant mothers who might have been riding that day. What if one of them went into labor on a BART platform and was unable to talk to her doctor because BART blocked the signal to her mobile phone? Let your imagination run wild for a moment or two — it won't take you long to dream up similar scenarios.
I can't help but wonder whether the decision was prompted more by financial concerns. It wouldn't be good for the bottom line if transit service was interrupted for a lengthy period. More to the point, if BART officials truly were concerned about what the protesters were going to do, it would have been much simpler and far less intrusive to deploy additional transit police. But that would have cost the agency tens of thousands of dollars.
Some argue that BART was within its legal rights because it didn't prevent commercial carriers from transmitting their signals; rather, it blocked patrons from receiving them. That strikes me as a specious distinction, akin to adhering to the letter of the law, but not its spirit.
I'd like to know more about the "credible information" about the protesters' planned "lawless activities." Who were the sources? And what were the activities? If the activities truly were serious, wouldn't BART have shut down its system and evacuated all of the stations? The fact that it didn't suggests that the threat was more benign. And the possibility of a protester jumping onto the tracks to keep trains from moving isn't enough to warrant the additional risks to the public's safety that BART unwittingly unleashed when it prevented its patrons from using their mobile communications devices.
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