BART: 'Extraordinary circumstances' only for disrupting cell phones

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit’s board of directors on Dec. 1 approved a formal policy on interrupting cell phone service in the system, allowing the interruptions only in “extraordinary circumstances” threatening public safety.

The policy was created in the wake of protests last summer during which cell service was turned off in some stations to disrupt protesters. Cutting off the critical public service, even temporarily, sparked criticism that the new policy is not likely to completely quell. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski immediately issued a statement calling concerns about the interruption legitimate and saying the FCC would review the policy.

“For interruption of communications service to be permissible or advisable, it must clear a high substantive and procedural bar,” Genachowski said in the statement. “The legal and policy issues raised by the type of wireless service interruption at issue here are significant and complex.”

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The commission will consider the constraints on service interruptions provided by the Communications Act and the First Amendment and will announce public hearings on the issue.

BART Board President Bob Franklin said in a statement that the intent of the policy is to “balance free speech rights with legitimate public safety concerns.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California did not endorse the policy, but staff attorney Michael Risher called it protective of First Amendment rights and said it sets a very high standard for future interruptions.

“The policy makes it clear that if they ever shut down cell service again, it won’t be because a demonstration is planned” but because of a criminal situation, he said.

The issue stems from a fatal police shooting in a BART station in July, which generated protests inside stations. The protests were largely organized via cell phones, and on Aug. 11 the transit system sought to deprive protesters of that communications channel by shutting off power to station cell sites. Officials at the time argued that the stations were not public spaces and that protest activities on train platforms interfered with and endangered customers.

Federal law prohibits the blocking or jamming of radio signals, including cell phone signals, and jamming devices are illegal. Rather than block signals, BART turned off some cells that it controls within its system.

The policy, adopted Dec. 1, was revised from a draft considered in November. The final approved version took authority for a service interruption out of the hands of the BART general manager and requires the creation of an operational procedure for the decision. It also requires BART to promptly report service interruptions to first responders and the system’s board of directors.

The policy “recognizes that any interruption of cellular service poses serious risks to public safety and that available open communications networks are critical to our economy and democracy and should be preserved to the fullest extent possible.” It says that BART is fully committed to allowing the exercise of First Amendment rights “where it can be done safely and without interference.”

Interruptions of cell service will be allowed only when “there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of district passengers, employees and other members of the public, the destruction of district property, or the substantial disruption of public transit services.”

Specific situations would include the use of cell phones to set off explosives or to organize violent activities endangering life or property. Under the policy, interruptions are to be temporary and narrowly tailored to ensure that the benefits outweigh the public risks.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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