Stop cell phone censorship

Pub date August 16, 2011

EDITORIAL The bizarre move by BART officials Aug. 11 to shut down cell phone service in the underground train stations made headlines around the world — and for good reason. It was, Wired Magazine reported Aug 15, apparently the first time in United States history that a public agency sought to block electronic communications as a way to prevent a political protest.

It came at a time when oppressive governments around the world have been disabling cell phone and internet services to frustrate protest organizers. And it followed months of abysmally bad behavior by the transit agency, which is trying to respond to yet another dubious BART police shooting. Civil liberties activists have issued statements of condemnation and outrage; state Sen. Leland Yee, who is also running for mayor, has called on the BART board to adopt policies preventing future shutoffs.

But the BART board has proven itself unable to properly monitor and oversee its law-enforcement operations. At this point, the state Legislature needs to step in.

It’s not surprising that protesters have been swarming around BART stations this summer. The agency has a history of failing to control its police force, and when an officer shot and killed an apparently drunk man in the Civic Center station July 3, activists were fed up. BART responded badly, refusing to turn over video of the incident — and the more facts that came out, the worse the agency looked.

We understand the frustration that commuters felt when angry activists disrupted service for a brief period during the afternoon rush hour. And we understand BART’s concern that further actions inside the stations could be difficult to control.

But let’s remember: The BART board has never been particularly open to public input and most of its members show little interest in accountability. Over the past two decades, hundreds of people have appeared to speak at board meetings to demand a serious response to police shootings — and nothing ever happened. It took a particularly horrendous incident — a point-blank shooting of an unarmed man that was recorded on video — for the board to create even a modest police oversight program.

BART officials are trying to argue that cell phone service in the underground stations is a new service, something offered at the agency’s discretion — as if BART were some sort of private café that gives its customers free wifi. But that ignores the fact that the Bay Area Rapid Transit District is a government agency, one that has no more business shutting down cell phone service than the White House does blocking a newspaper from publishing embarrassing secrets.

As a practical matter, the decision was foolish: The protesters may have been inconvenienced, but so were hundreds of others who may have been trying to make business calls or connect to family members. In political terms, it was inexcusable. Think about it: A public agency was intentionally disabling communications to prevent a political protest. That’s about as bad as it gets.

We agree with Yee that the BART board ought to set a clear policy against any future attempts to control cell phone service for political purposes. But that’s not likely to happen — and it won’t be enough. The state Legislature needs to pass a measure specifically banning any public agency in California from disabling or interfering with any public communications system for political purposes. We can’t wait to see BART lobbyists show up and try to oppose that one.