BART board approves cellphone outage policy

December 1, 2011 8:06:43 PM PST
BART is now the first transit agency in the country to have specific guidelines for cutting off cellphone service. BART's board of directors adopted a policy Tuesday saying the transit agency will only cut off cellphone service during extreme emergencies, such as a terrorist attack.

BART shut down cell service temporarily in its San Francisco stations in August, trying to prevent a planned protest over a fatal police shooting.

Critics are saying that if not for BART's actions, we would not have needed a policy at all. For now, any future decision to cut off service would be made by the general manager.

"You can control where I smoke a cigarette, where I cross the street, where I eat out, but you can't control when I use my cellphone," BART rider Nivia Brown said.

A freedom no one ever questioned until last August when BART shut off service to hamper a demonstration on a platform.

"It's a Supreme Court ruling that allows, under very narrow circumstances, you have to meet a lot of tests in order to be able to put public safety ahead of free speech," former BART spokesman Linton Johnson said in August of 2011.

An act that earned Johnson and his agency the wrath of free speech activists who finally pushed BART's board of directors into making a new cellphone policy which passed Tuesday.

"If we were faced with the exact circumstances in the future, we would not have shut off cellphone service," BART Board President Bob Franklin said. "We would go in and arrest the people about to commit some crime."

Specifically, BART's new policy would validate cutting off cellphone service only under extreme circumstances like a bomb threat, a terrorist attack, or what it calls severe disruptions of service. For some BART board members, that still isn't strong enough.

"The policy is very vague, but I think it's been purposely made vague," BART Board Member Lynette Sweet said. "My hope is that when the general manager comes back with her operational procedures on this, which she has to do, then the police chief will be right at the top, priority."

But according to the Federal Communications Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union, who had input, the policy is an improvement.

"The policy is a step in the right direction,' Linda Lye with the ACLU said. "But again, it takes two things, policy and implementation."

Considering BART's controversial past two years, the longer it takes to test this new guideline, the better.

"We opened the box but let's close it finally and just say we won't do it," Sweet said. "But because we opened it, we had to come up with a policy."

BART, on the other hand, describes this move as groundbreaking. The transit agency is not proud of being the first to turn off cellphone coverage, but it is proud of being the first to write a policy about it.

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