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Cell Service Shutdown at BART: Does it Truly Sacrifice Freedom of Speech at the Expense of Passenger Safety?


The Bay Area’s rapid train system, BART, is currently being scrutinized by a variety of groups, from local and state governments, to activist groups, to even from within its own board members, all of which because the agency wanted to avert a looming strike inside a station platform by shutting down cellphone service inside the Market Street tube. But, is shutting down cellphone service a solution to avoid such violent protests and reduce security risks for riders and operators?

It falls under the matter of protecting the riding public and BART operators versus expressing one’s opinion about a recent spate of events that prompted the transit agency to think about temporarily halting cellphone service at the Civic Center station, and sure did, they shut down phone service last August 11 to avoid a protest inside the station’s platform area. That reminded me of a similar, more violent protest that took place around the same time in a larger city, London, in which a police brutality that resulted in a death of a young man sparked a week’s worth of violent looting, vandalism, and protests by youths and adults against the police, shutting down a large part of the city and resulting in several buildings and vehicles destroyed in the process. I believe it was a wise idea that BART shut down its cellphone service for a short period of time–three hours–because it would somehow avoid a similar fate as what happened to London during the time, as well as preventing the use of cellphones to call in other people to join an angry protest at BART’s platforms in San Francisco. And, shutting down cellphone service would discourage potential rioters and looters to start messaging their friends and fellow troublemakers to descend upon Civic Center Plaza and start making trouble in the Downtown and Union Square areas later on.

A protester tries to climb a BART train at the Civic Center station to protest a July murder. – San Francisco Examiner image
However, a flip side may also be observed: while BART shut down its mobile phone signals in the interest of public safety, in my opinion, it has also created a public nightmare because many people use their cellphones inside BART trains, and the signal shutdown meant that many passengers could not talk to their peers, send text messages, or even surf the internet using their 3G network. And that for me makes me concerned in terms of sending updates to the proper authorities should a strike really occurred (it did not happen at all), as well as communicating to other concerned riders and their loved ones about train and platform safety should protesters start barricading the platform. Worst of all, if any serious emergency had occurred on or close to the station, riders would not be able to call 911 or an ambulance service to take care of anyone who got sick on board the train or on the station platform, forcing them either to wait until reaching Powell or 16th Street/Mission stations. Plus, it happened during the height of the afternoon rush hour (4 to 7pm) where a majority of commuters head away from San Francisco to either the East Bay or the Peninsula, so chances of having missed calls due to change in schedule, meeting up with someone, or other things were pretty immense at the time, as well as text messages to remind their friends and loved ones that they are heading home or meeting them that went unsent due to a loss of signal. And, as many groups think that BART’s act breaches the Freedom of Expression by shutting down mobile phone service, in my opinion, BART is just doing it to protect passengers and operators from any unwanted activity inside the Civic Center station, and mind you: cellphone signal loss only occurred at one Downtown station! The Market Street Tube, in its entirety, has four stations, and a loss of signal in one station does not necessarily mean that the rest of the stations have no mobile signals–it was specifically-targeted at that station because that was the station where a protest would have taken place, should cellphone service was available at the time.

A protester wearing a mask associated with the hacking group, Anonymous, proclaiming “Anonymity is Dead” near San Francisco’s Powell Station. – Marginlines image
My verdict on this is BART has done an incredible job of keeping passenger and operator security at bay by temporarily halting mobile phone service at one station. Although many people believe that it violates the Constitution’s Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression by disallowing communication for a certain amount of time, it does not necessarily mean that BART has started filtering mobile phone service signals to determine which signals carried “undesirable” calls or text messages from the under the Civic Center platform; it only means that BART has had to make a relatively quick decision to address a growing problem of protesters descending onto the station in response of the BART police murder of a homeless man at the said station a month earlier, and that an earlier protest inside the station platform has deemed to “put commuters’ lives at risk”. Even though protesters wanted to address issues regarding BART police and website security, it is a disgrace for thousands to commuters to see that they want to stop the system from running during the evening rush hour when people try to head home from work in the thousands, and in my opinion, does not constitute a way to address their concerns about the agency shutting down cellphone service for the sake of public safety and the vicious murder of a homeless man. Is there still room for any negotiation or talks with the protesters to address this matter peacefully? Is there a word called cooperation among both BART and the protesters to negotiate better security and safety mechanisms for the riding public? I think it’s time for BART, the San Francisco Police, and protesters to really look at what really caused the murder in the first place, not react to a simple switching off of phone service to avoid a protest. My suggestion for BART though is to really take a look at the real impact of a longer shutdown of cellphone service before implementing one again because it impacts so many commuters that today, it has become a national issue of concern regarding what limitations have to be made to keep within the confines of the Freedom of Speech guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

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