Last week the Bay Area Rapid Transit System area cut off cellphone service in its downtown San Francisco stations for four hours in an attempt to prevent a protest over a fatal shooting by BART police, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
A BART official explained later told the Chronicle that while there was some concern about the free speech implications of that decision, the courts have ruled that “public safety takes priority.” That’s a highly questionable interpretation. Many Americans still believe the Constitution does not hold that security, or speculative concerns about security, should trump liberty in every case. On more practical grounds, BART seems to have failed to consider the safety of anyone who might have needed to call for help with a cellphone during that period.
The protest did not materialize but the backlash continues. Some have compared the action, fairly I think, with the communications blackouts imposed by oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Nobody said it better than a commuter who spoke to the Chronicle:
“We don’t want the government turning off cell phones in Syria, and we don’t want them turning off cell phones here,” said Patricia Shean, 72, of San Francisco. “We deal with things differently here.”
Critics of this action are not, as BART and its supporters have suggested, saying that travelers have an absolute right to cellphone service everywhere they go. We’re saying that when the government deliberately obstructs communication in order to suppress dissent – whether that’s achieved by turning off cellphone towers or forbidding people to talk to each other on platforms – we’re all in dangerous territory.