SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The American Civil Liberties Union stepped up its complaints Monday that the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency acted illegally last week when it cut off wireless and cellular service in an effort to stifle a protest, but agency spokesmen continued to defended the decision.
Officials with the Northern California chapter of the ACLU said they were meeting with the agency’s police chief late Monday afternoon as a precusor to determining whether to file a lawsuit against BART.
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BART shut off wireless access at several San Francisco stations last Thursday evening to disrupt a planned demonstration on its subway lines. It appeared BART’s tactic worked because no protests occurred.
BART spokesman Jim Allison said that the cell phone disruptions were legal as the agency owns the property and infrastructure.
But ACLU attorneys in letters to BART and to the Federal Communications Commission on Monday likened BART’s installing wireless networks underground as a passenger service to a government entity building a park. “Government’s don’t have to build parks,” the organization said. “But once they do, they can’t lock out speech they disagree with.”
BART’s chief spokesman Linton Johnson said people are always allowed to protest outside of the fare gates at the BART stations, but not on the platforms or trains themselves.
“I personally welcome… anyone that wants to protest, as long as they do it safely,” Johnson said.
The planned protest last Thursday was in response to the fatal shooting of Charles Hill by BART police in the Civic Center station on July 3. On July 11, protesters gathered at the station and prevented trains from leaving by blocking the train doors, with one even climbing on top of a train.
During that demonstration, protesters “showed a propensity to create chaos on the platform, and that is unacceptable” because it jeopardizes customer and employee safety, Johnson said.
To prevent a similar disruption Thursday, BART temporarily suspended the wireless services because “we had knowledge ahead of time about the time, place and manner of how this illegal protest was going to take place, and were forced into a gut-wrenching decision of how we were going to stop it,” Johnson said.
He said the cell service was interrupted for three hours at four stations, where police and ambulances were then stationed in case of an emergency.
“We were forced into this decision,” he said. “This is not one we wanted to make.”
Johnson declined to say whether BART officials would interrupt cellphone service again for future protests, saying only that “we will staff accordingly and take appropriate measures,” including possibly closing stations temporarily.
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