SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Days after a decision was made by Bay Area Rapid Transit officials to interrupt underground cellphone and wireless service at several downtown San Francisco stations in an attempt to disrupt a possible protest, the move continued to draw more and more criticism for potentially violating free-speech rights.

KCBS’ Anna Duckworth Reports:

The transit agency interrupted service for several hours on Thursday evening in response to a possible planned protest that was spurred by the fatal shooting of 45-year-old Charles Hill by BART police on July 3.

BART officials said protest organizers were planning to disrupt train service during the rush hour, like protesters did July 11, when a protest at the Civic Center station temporarily closed it and led to a number of arrests.

The decision to cut service was widely covered across the globe — from Bay Area blogs to international TV outlets like the Middle East’s Al Jazeera. A number of articles and comments drew comparisons to Egypt’s deposed President Hosni Mubarek, who cut Internet and cellphone services in the country for days during protests earlier this year that ultimately drove him from office.

Twitter users have even started a trend using the hashtag .muBARTek as play on his name in vigorous weekend discussion about the BART incident.

“BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt,” the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation said on its website.

Civil rights groups voiced opinions, as well. A blog post on the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California’s website said, “The government shouldn’t be in the business of cutting off the free flow of information. Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it’s halfway around the world or right here in San Francisco.”

State Sen. Leland Yee, A San Francisco mayoral candidate, also released a statement Saturday blasting BART officials for their decision.

“I am shocked that BART thinks they can use authoritarian control tactics,” he said. “BART’s decision was not only a gross violation of free speech rights; it was irresponsible and compromised public safety.”

The decision even drew an angry response from one of BART’s own board members.

Lynette Sweet said that she was “just shocked that they didn’t think about the implications” of the denial of cell service.

KCBS Interviews BART Board Member Lynette Sweet:

“We really don’t have the right to be this type of censor,” said Sweet. “In my opinion, we’ve let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that’s not fair.”

BART officials said they shut down power Thursday evening to cellular towers for their underground stations stretching from downtown to San Francisco International Airport after learning protesters planned to use mobile devices to coordinate its demonstration.

BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow defended the move for public safety reasons. He said that the agency decided to turn off underground cell service because it received reports that a rowdy group that had protested in July had similar plans.

“It wasn’t a decision made lightly. This wasn’t about free speech. It was about safety,” Fairow said.

BART spokesman Jim Allison maintained that the cellphone disruptions were legal as the agency owns the property and infrastructure. He added while they didn’t need the permission of cellphone carriers to temporarily cut service, they notified them as a courtesy.

The decision was made after agency officials saw details about the protest on an organizer’s website. He said the agency had extra staff and officers aboard trains during that time for anybody who wanted to report an emergency, as well as courtesy phones on station platforms.

“I think the entire argument is that some people think it created an unsafe situation is faulty logic,” Allison said. “BART had operated for 35 years without cellphone service and no one ever suggested back then that a lack of it made it difficult to report emergencies and we had the same infrastructure in place.”

On Saturday at one of the stations where cell phone service was disrupted, passenger Phil Eager, 44, shared the opinion of some that BART’s approach seemed extreme.

“It struck me as pretty strange and kind of extreme,” said Eager, a San Francisco attorney. “It’s not a First Amendment debate, but rather a civil liberties issue.”

Eager said many of his friends riding BART on Thursday were upset with the agency’s actions, some even calling it a “police state.”

Mark Malmberg, 58, of Orinda, believed that BART could’ve used a different approach instead of shutting down cellphone usage.

“Even though it sounds like they wanted to avoid a mob gathering, you can’t stop people from expressing themselves,” Malmberg said. “I hope those who protest can do so in a civil manner.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Comments (49)
  1. Turkey says:

    Kick this lady off the BART board of directors if you want BART to be safe, cutting power to convenience items was smart as it stopped the protestors from coordinating and causing safety issue, the phones in the stations and on the trains to BART officials still worked, and the heavy police presence meant people were already their able to respond if needed. Wake up! I think BART should turn the towers off all the time if people are going to complain about it.

    1. Peter B. Towle says:

      Totally agreed !

  2. David Ward says:

    BART did the right thing!

    1. Peter B. Towle says:

      BART was absolutely right!

    2. Roger Craig says:

      Nope and if some one needed to call the police or fire service what do you think would have happened, pull your head out your arse…

      1. Five Oh says:

        They would use have used the phone on the train to BART control, or a white courtesy phone in the station, or just asked one of many cops who was already there. WAKE UP Mr. Craig and use some on your brain cells. BART did the right thing, if you don’t like it, don’t ride BART.

      2. Ralph says:

        I’d do what MILLIONS of people did in a crisis in the subway before the invention of cellphones…

    3. macbaldy says:

      BART did what it should do in such situations.

  3. Vincent Chew says:

    What is this fool talking about. What implications is Sweet referring too? Someone get a doctor for her so she could remove her head from her ass.

  4. canna says:

    Bottom line no protest happened but not because they turned off cell towers. The protest doesn’t get planned after you get on BART. It obviously would be planned ahead of time. So the only ones put at risk were those who possibly might have had a medical emergency and wouldn’t be able to contact needed help. BART doesn’t know what they are talking about!!!! They just inconvenienced everyone for no good reason.

    1. Roger Craig says:

      no protest happened as that was propaganda to promote their agenda…

  5. J Dam says:

    First thing those who choose the read this statement need to understand, I do not represent any protesting organizations, I just understand the laws of our land as it written. Having said that, this is a blatant violation of the US Constitution, under the first Amendment, and the Freedom of Information ACT. BART Transit Authority for this unconstitutional act of authority should be shot down in the legal system. I absolutely understand, BART is NOT required to offer cell tower service, in light of the fact they do, BART is required to advise the general public of such an act, to shut-down the Towers. Due to the reasons in which was announced, that was NOT just cause to suspend public communication. There are provisions under Department of Homeland Security (DOHS) that permits such an act to prevent a terrorist attack, and/ or riots etc…

    1. Josh Stewart says:

      THANK YOU for talking some sense into people. COMPLETELY UNCONSTITUTIONAL, but then again, not everyone has a background in Constitutional Law. I’m worried what this will mean for BART, legal wise, down the road. I can see this one ending in the Courts!

    2. Ralph says:

      Hey genius. All they had to do was take an elevator to street level. They weren’t waiting for a train, they were there to protest, so what’s wrong with going up to the street level to make a cellphone call? Just because it was inconvenient doesn’t make it illegal. Cellphones are a privledge, not a right.

    3. macbaldy says:

      You’re making it up as you go along, huh? There Is no constitutional issue in this situation. Those cell towers don’t have to exist where there are. They’re there, on BART property, by courtesy of BART. Any complaint about cell phone access shutdown is free speech but not the use of a cell phone to do it. People are constructing scenarios that have no basis in case law.

      BART did the right thing for its purposes. Flash mobs have been too prominent in the news for this remedy to go unused. It will happen again, by more and more agencies.

  6. Jeff says:

    Shutting down cell service? Next twitter, e-mail accounts, etc. Welcome to Iran, China and Egypt…are you kidding me, how can anyone condone this form of censorship?

    1. Roger Craig says:

      Because this is a country of sheep and nothing will ever wake them up look who is running america now. And to those that see this article and shout out it is good that you do as your not the sheep the gov likes….

      Soon they will be after us too…

    2. macbaldy says:

      Access control is different from censorship. If you have a satellite phone, no problem until they exercise control on that too. Communications access is an entirely different legality from censorship. Build and install your own system if you want to control access but you’ll probably charge more.

  7. Dave says:

    J Dam … turning off the cell it’s not a violation of the constitution. No one told the organizers they could not assemble. Just because they are disorganized and can’t schedule a protest doesn’t mean there is some evil, government conspiracy.

    1. J Dam says:

      Who ever said anything about a government cover-up or conspiracy? However the fact remains BART still violated the Freedom of Information Act, that is beyond contestation.

      1. T P says:

        If an airplane decides to shut down wireless communication mid-flight over US airspace, even though it doesn’t present any danger to the flight, is the airline “violating” free speech? It’s the same situation with BART. BART PD had officers on standby at each station affected and courtesy telephones available to those who had an emergency. If someone needed help at a blacked out station, they could get it. Even between stations, passengers can contact the train operator, who can then contact emergency services. As you said, BART is not required to allow wireless communication within its tunnels. How in the world can BART violate the US Constitution if it doesn’t allow a service it’s not required to? Use some critical thinking…

      2. Sweeet says:

        Dude…the Freedom of Information Act says citizens can ask for and receive any correspondence the governmental agency has, unless it is classified It has nothing to do with this issue. You don’t know what you are talking about.

  8. Larry Z says:

    As usual a headline that is blatantly wrong. There was no jamming of cell phone signals. For starters that would have been illegal as radio jamming of any kind is illegal per federal law. This was merely a case of turning off a free service provided by BART to its passengers in underground stations. There is no inherent right to have this service. Every time some free amenity is taken away for even a short time someone whines their human rights are being violated.

    Inconveniencing a few people for a few minutes while they are underground in a BART station is far better than inconveniencing hundreds or thousand of people resulting from station shutdowns and train stoppages because a few people want to ignore the law and cause a public disturbance. There may be a right assemble (WITH A PERMIT) but there is no right to break the law and interfere with the rights of law abiding citizens. NOT EVEN IN SF in spite the way it appears.

    1. Bill says:

      Muni, which is one level up in the subway system has no cell service at all.

  9. Susan says:

    In the first place, people need to behave in a civil manner while in public. The guy who got shot and killed threw a KNIFE at the officer. He threatened an officer and got his just reward. Don’t mess with police or you pay for it. I don’t feel sorry for him, just the people who are inconvenienced by idiots who stage riots in public for fruitcakes who behave badly in public.

    Wake up people. BEHAVE!

    1. Roger Craig says:

      Wait till they have your just rewards for you…

    2. Jeff says:

      If it was your son or brother, you might think differently. NEVER in history of the US, was a police officer killed by a thrown knife, especially when it was thrown on “ground level” AT the train, NOT the cop. At this point he is UNARMED. You don’t need to shoot at this point! London police would have easily handled this situation without the use of guns, since they DON’T carry them.

  10. mechanic says:

    What the heck did people do on BART in the 70’s??? …. before cell phones!!
    ]Get over it, and get a life, for Christ’s sake!

  11. ptown says:

    Excellent job by BART.

  12. Equal Wheels says:

    I can’t believe this is even a debate. BART has an obligation to the rest of the general public and citizens who use their services. First and foremost that is for their safety and security. Following that is to provide transportation in a timely and reasonable fashion. If the protesters want to organize then they should do it in a place where they are not infringing on the lives and rights of everyone else using the service. What’s next, some BART passenger suing them for being traumatized by a screaming mob of protesters? BART’s first priority was to their real passengers and if they thought that shutting down cell service might help then more power to them. All these idiots complaining that their “civil liberties” were somehow violated need to have less free time on their hands.

  13. Fed-Up says:

    BART did it so no one would record them killing another unarmed person!!

    1. Ralph says:

      How does not having a cellphone signal equate to not being able to take a video with your cellphone? Some of the people that comment on here are really dumb, sheesh.

  14. Tim Giangiobbe says:

    Murderous Cops need to be strapped to the BART tracks.

  15. Tim Giangiobbe says:

    The Murderous cops must protect.THEIR PENSIONS !

  16. Nickolas Robinson says:

    What are these idiots protesting about now? Pulling a knife on a cop will get you shot. Period. What part of that do these idiots not understand??? When you bring a knife to a gun fight, you loose. Especially when it is the law.
    Of course the RACIST ACLU has there hand in it and should be disbanded as a hate propaganda group.
    I have no pity for criminals who threaten police officers, nor ignorant people who don’t care to look at facts and see black vs white everywhere they look.
    Get a grip, this is 2011, not 1811.

  17. Equal Wheels says:

    From what I’ve seen of the postings on here that decry BART’s actions the common thread among them seems to be a bigoted, resentful, ignorance. It isn’t often I see a vocal element so outraged and so woefully uninformed. From the comments referencing the Freedom of Information Act, to the comments about Iraq and Egypt, much less the “you can’t video a crime with no cell service” comment, they all wreak of ignorance. BART didn’t block the signal, they just turned off a free service. If these folks think for one second they are representing any righteous segment of society then their delusional too.

  18. John Deltuvia says:

    BART violated Federal Communications Commission rules. Plain and simple. When your rates go up when BART is hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for trying to secede from the USA, don’t come crying.

  19. John Deltuvia says:

    Oh, and by the way, if you don’t get the idea of flash mob tactics: an action is planned possibly, and announce via websites, listserves, and even face-to-face. A few people go on ahead first to check conditions, and then tweet messages. If the tweet is never received, the flash mob doesn’t happen.

    So start calling for payphones to reinstalled on BART, because protesters can have a lot of fun doing ‘chatter’ to get the fascists to keep illegally shutting down cell phone service, only to have no protests emerge!