BART defends cutting off cellphone service

August 13, 2011 12:30:55 AM PDT
A controversial strategy apparently stopped a BART protest before it ever started. Police blocked all cell service at the Civic Center station Thursday night, preventing demonstrators from organizing, but also stopping commuters from making any calls. Critics say the move violated free speech rights and threatened public safety.

BART officers on the Civic Center platform Thursday were prepared for a violent protest that was thwarted by an unusual move.

"I believe it was simply a matter of turning the power off to perhaps the antennas or towers there," BART Police Deputy Chief Benson Fairow said.

Fairow says they turned off the cell phone antennas from Balboa Station to Embarcadero Station from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. It was a tactic to prevent the protesters from using their cell phones to coordinate what police believed would be a violent and dangerous protest of the July 3 shooting of Charles Hill by BART police.

"I was very confident that there was going to be conflict and I did not want that conflict to occur on a platform where someone could get hurt or killed," Fairow said.

But turning off cell service also violated First Amendment rights of protesters and threatened the safety of passengers, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Association of Public Safety Officials.

"Public safety is certainly a compelling government interet, but to block the speech of thousands based solely on the possibility of a protest that might impact public safety does not meet the rigorous tests under our First Amendment," EFF spokesperson Kevin Bankston said.

"What if there was a fire on the train? What if there was a critical incident inside the tunnels? What if somebody was having a heart attack on board the train and they needed to call 911 immediately," Association of Public Safety Officials spokesperson David Cruise asked.

Reaction from BART passengers is mixed

"A little bit of an infringement of our free speech and opportunity to communicate how we want to ans when we want to and how we want to," BART passenger Jill Gibson said.

"I side with BART, I do," another passenger said.

Fairow says that there were sufficient officers and BART personnel on duty during the time to respond quickly to any emergency. He says he traded a short amount of the protesters political free speech for riders' safety.

"If somebody would have gotten hurt or killed over it I don't think that price is a price we're going to pay for free speech," Fairow said.

Fairow says the decision was not made lightly and it came from top administration officials.

Bankston says it was a shameful act and should be investigated.

"It's shocking to see these kinds of tactics being deployed in the United States," Bankston said.


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