Public safety, technology and the First Amendment collide in San Francisco’s subway – The Washington Post

Posted: August 29, 2011 by scaryhouse in Uncategorized

By Robert Barnes, Sunday, August 28, 5:16 PM

Police in riot gear. Masked demonstrators ready for a confrontation. And then government forces shut down the wireless network to try to thwart plans for the “flash mob” protest coordinated by cellphones and Twitter.

It’s not a scene from the Arab Spring, but one from America’s beautiful city on the bay, San Francisco. It developed with a backdrop not of tanks and fires but of thousands of annoyed commuters trying to get to their trains.

Worried about a plan to disrupt service, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police this month decided to pull the plug on the system that allows underground cellphone service. It lasted only a few hours, but the decision continues to resonate.

Protests continue, this time about the decision to shut down the cellphones. Civil libertarians are alarmed. And First Amendment scholars are intrigued.

The BART decision may become “a historical marker of sorts as we navigate the intersection, with its occasional collisions, of new technology, public safety and our First Amendment freedoms,” writes Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center.

And Michael Risher, an attorney for the ACLU of Northen California, calls it “the first time in the United States that a government entity has shut down a communications network to stop a protest against that very government entity.”

BART officials say they made a rare and reasonable decision faced with credible information that the protesters were prepared to chain themselves to trains and take other action to disrupt service during the “15 busiest minutes of the day.”

“BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform,” officials said in a statement.

The original protests were about the July 3 fatal shooting by transit police of a man they said threw a knife at an officer. One protest followed, and then police learned of a larger demonstration planned for Aug. 11.

The protesters intended to disrupt operations on the train platforms and use cellphones and social media to relay information about police whereabouts, police said. So BART shut down, for several hours at several stations, the network it owns that relays cellphone service underground.

via Public safety, technology and the First Amendment collide in San Francisco’s subway – The Washington Post.

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