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Here's the thing about censorship: in this globally connected world, censorship is never local.

So, whether you live in the SF Bay Area or not, whether you ride the BART rail system or not, the recent actions of local government officials affected us all.

Last Thursday, during the evening rush hour commute, BART shut down cell antennas in several of its San Francisco stations. According to BART’s official statement, silencing mobile devices was “one of many tactics” to prevent an on-site protest against the agency. BART officials claim that the protesters planned to “coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of the BART Police.” This supposedly justified the blackout of all cell phone activity within the BART stations.

But crowd control and communication control are two very different things, and it is dangerous for governments to confuse them. That is true for BART, as much as it is true for Hosni Mubarek in Egypt or David Cameron in the UK.

In the wake of a second BART demonstration yesterday, there is a great deal of debate about the balance between public safety and free expression. This debate is critically important. It is a fundamental piece of our democracy that distinguishes us from other more repressive places in the world.

And here is why what San Francisco and BART officials do next matters: the whole world is watching.

The “local” conversation about the police powers vested in BART, the applicability of the California Constitution or the primacy of the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly is only one part of the picture. Be sure that government officials in China, Vietnam, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also watching this debate. Every time a Western democratic power chooses the censorship switch, it validates the censorship in other countries where the First Amendment has no purchase.

In order for us, as a democratic society, to maintain the moral authority to condemn repressive censorship and encourage the repressed to speak out against their governments, we must guard against the eroding of our own principles. Even if it involves the actions of just one local transit authority.

This is not a call for the further criticism of BART. If we are honest with each other, no one is seeking a world in which the police are prevented from acting swiftly and responsibly to protect people -- certainly not unmanaged crowds within falling distance of electrified rails.

This is a call for BART to lead in a way that serves its patrons and provides an example to every other government authority with the power to shut down a communication network. There must be a framework and decision process for deciding which tools to use in order to control a crowd. In this country, and particularly in San Francisco, the communication “kill switch” should be a tool of last resort.
Steve Langdon's profile photoJenn Louie's profile photoLeslie Liu's profile photoBen Petrosky's profile photo
Totally agree with +Marc Brown on this. If someone's freedom of expression in their protests stops a public service like Bart from working properly, I would rather have them punished.

Its easy to get excited about showing violent protests. Not letting Bart operate properly and thinking it will only affect BART is totally stupid. It affects so many riders who ride BART everyday to go to work/home wherever. In a city like SF you can't just ask people to find other means to commute paying say 10 times for a Taxi because you want to show protest.
Disagree with +Vardhman Jain and +Marc Brown. Limiting protests to activities "that do not disrupt" would effectively cordon free speech to the fringes. If you can gather enough people for a lawful protest to disrupt, then that sends an important message, whether it's Critical Mass or farmers driving tractors into the heart of Paris. And if the protesters break the law, then arrest them (getting arrested en masse is an important part of non-violent resistance). But I don't accept that the law should preemptively prevent "disruptive (but lawful)" protest activity.

Nor does BART's ownership of the nodes settle the issue of the network. If BART were required to provide "pole space" for any wireless operator, or if cross-bay subway transit weren't a natural monopoly, then maybe they'd have an argument. As it is, they are using their unique position selectively to interfere with lawful activity (organizing a protest).
+Fred von Lohmann If I for one and others don't agree with those who are Protesting in disruptive ways, what would be our option ?
I think the bigger question here is: why do the BART police keep killing people? Seriously, this shouldn't be an annual ritual. Heck, why do they even have guns? Is there any threat on the BART that actually justifies routine carry of firearms?
We're talking about several separate issues here. One is whether demonstrations that disrupt BART service are legally protected, or protected expression under the 1st Amdt, regardless of BART's tactics. The second is whether BART may turn off its cellphone antennas to preempt a demonstration--where the demonstration could be legal or illegal. The third issue, the one that Nicole focused on, is the impact on a global audience of strategies employed in America to manage demonstrations. Repressive regimes would love to be able to point to BART's actions as evidence of US hypocrisy.
Not sure where I stand on this one. I think saying "crowd control and communication control are two very different things" is rhetorically pleasing, but I don't think it really stands up. Aren't there instances where communication is legally controlled because of a threat to life? As you say, the communication "kill switch" should be a tool of last resort. I agree with that. I don't know if it was a last resort here, probably not. So, in this instance I probably disagree with it being used. But I don't think communication and crowd control are so neatly exclusive of each other. If it was clear the disrupters intended to be violent (they brought clubs, encouraged people to damage the trains and push non-disrupters onto the tracks), would the kill switch be ok as a tool to prevent injury and loss of life? In my opinion, yes. I don't know the details of what happened in the UK well enough to know whether killing the comms was ok there, either. But initiation of violence by protestors is an important distinction for me and there was certainly huge property damage and injury and loss of life there. It was not non-violent protest.
That said, I also disagree Marc Brown when he implies that a kill switch is ok if used in breaking up mobs of jackasses, as opposed to people with an actual grievance. I agree with Fred that mass demonstrations and arrests are important parts of non-violent resistance. And, people who I think are jackasses - in my book that includes Critical Mass and the BART disrupters - and people who have causes I think are legitimate should both have the same right to disrupt, peacefully.
Nicole, any criteria you can offer for when the kill switch is ok? (And would the repressive governments not use those instances as examples to justify their repression, too?)
Fred, what about non-civil disobedience? I'm with you in your succinct articulate defense of right to safely and civilly disrupt - and be arrested. But when protesters start taking away the rights of others (to be safe, among other things), I'm out. If a kill switch will stop violence, use it, imo. I'd also argue that if a kill switch would help police restore order on a platform that was dangerously overcrowded, making it a genuine safety hazard as opposed to an inconvenience, it should be used. There is no right to be violent or threaten the safety of others and using arrests as the consequence is not adequate protection of other peoples' rights. Speech is a vital right, but it is not the only one and I don't think it should trump all others (and those exercising it in protest shouldn't be the only one's whose rights are considered), particularly physical safety when there is an imminent and likely threat to safety, imo.
I'm not a lawyer, so I'm sure my arguments above have legal holes throughout, but that's my perspective as a layperson who values both safety and speech and wants to see them balanced.
+Marc Brown, I think protesting the government agency killing folks (which is what the originally-feared protest was alleged to be about) makes more sense than protesting the general scourge of gun violence would - the latter is admittedly a larger problem, but the former is amenable to simpler solutions and is more directly the responsibility of a single party. And empirically speaking, armed BART police have proven over the last couple of years to be a much greater threat to commuter safety than any hypothetical dangers a protest might pose.
I agree with +Marc Brown if indeed BART put in the cell repeaters at their expense as a convenience to its customers, there is no free speech issue here. But today moral outrage gets press. And it makes the demonstrators feel good.
Even if there's no free speech issue, it was still a very bad move on the part of BART.
Somehow I just came upon this thread, but it's been an interesting read. +Steve Langdon, I'm sympathetic to the safety concerns, it seems like the points you make about safety and security may be best addressed in other ways. And giving BART an out here may simply be excusing shoddy planning/reaction and not holding them to a high enough standard, given their essentially monopolistic role.

Thinking to the incident on Long Island last year where Thanksgiving door-busters rushed en masse and killed a man, there are aspects of crowd management and infrastructure that could be put in place to safeguard people (e.g., limiting number of people who can enter, cutting power to electrified tracks) that don't require downing a communication network. Here BART may have felt it was doing what it needed to under the circumstances to maintain order; however, there are probably scores of things they could/should be doing well in advance of protests to help mitigate any adverse effects. One can easily imagine all the ways that a communication network could be instrumental to safety/security in a time of chaos.
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