Transit agency head defends cell service shut-off

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) ? Transit police had already decided to keep the San Francisco subway system’s wireless network operating by the time rush hour began Monday and protesters massed on the Civic Center platform.

It was a marked departure from Thursday, when Bay Area Rapid Transit officials cut power to the subterranean wireless network and quelled a brewing protest that relied on text messaging and social networks for organizing.

The disruption put the transit agency in the middle of a raging debate on free speech and safety. But officials said that’s not why police decided to leave the wireless network operating on Monday.

Instead, BART board president Bob Franklin said, disrupting service was viewed as valueless for a demonstration that simply called for protesters to mass at 5 p.m. and didn’t rely on moment-by-moment instructions communicated electronically by organizers.

“There wasn’t a need to turn off the cell phone coverage,” Franklin said.

Franklin said he supported the action last week but doesn’t see BART ever again shutting the wireless network to quell a brewing protest. That’s because he believes future protesters won’t rely on their cell phones to organize, knowing BART has the capability to cut communications in its station.

“I don’t see a need to do it again,” Franklin said.

In an interview Tuesday, Franklin defended the agency’s actions to cut communications, saying it was legal and appropriate to ensure commuter safety.

Franklin said the idea originated with BART’s chief spokesman Linton Johnson last week as the transit agency developed its response to the protest planned after BART police shot and killed Charles Hill, a 45-year-old transient, on July 3. Hill was accused of lunging at officers with a knife.

Organizers posted instructions for the demonstration on Web sites and on Twitter, indicating more instructions would be issued electronically just before the demonstration was to start.

So Johnson proposed police cut wireless power in BART’s San Francisco stations. Neither Johnson nor BART Police Chief Kenton Riley responded to several requests for comment.

Franklin said interim general manager Sherwood Wakeman, formerly the agency’s top lawyer, signed off on the plan.

“It stopped the protest,” Franklin said of the action.

Franklin said BART’s lawyers also believe its strategy Monday was a legal way to ensure safety on its crowded platforms.

Nonetheless, Franklin said he expects BART will get hit with a lawsuit, even though he thinks the issue of cutting communications to quell potentially dangerous demonstrations needs to be decided on a national level.

“It’s an interesting issue of free speech,” Franklin said. “The debate is now well beyond BART.”

Civil libertarian groups have backed away from threats to legally challenge BART over the issue, even though advocates fear other government agencies will use similar tactics if the practice isn’t challenged in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union met with BART’s police chief Monday even as demonstrators protested the agency’s previous action to block wireless reception.

After the meeting, ACLU attorney Michael Risher said the organization had no plans to immediately file a lawsuit and he was disappointed that he didn’t extract a pledge from BART to refrain from similar tactics in the future. He planned to keep meeting with the agency.

“While the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is not currently in the process of filing a lawsuit against BART for shutting down wireless service, we have not entirely ruled out the possibility,” ACLU spokeswoman Rebecca Farmer said Tuesday. “This is a rapidly evolving situation. We are in conversation with BART, and our analysis will change depending on BART’s actions going forward.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, too, said it was unlikely to file a lawsuit over the disabling of wireless reception for three hours.

Still, the shutdown of wireless towers in stations near the protest Thursday raised questions about the role that social networks play in helping people, from Egypt to London, organize online. In the U.S., with its history of free speech, critics are saying BART’s move was unconstitutional.

Elijah Sparrow, one of the protesters Monday night, called the demonstration “one of the defining battles of the 21st century over who is going to control communication.”

BART’s actions Thursday night prompted a Federal Communications Commission investigation, and a hacking group organized an attack on one of the agency’s websites on Sunday, posting personal information of more than 2,000 passengers online. The group Anonymous called for a disruption of BART’s evening commute Monday.

BART officials said they were working on a plan to block any efforts by protesters to disrupt the service, which carries 190,000 passengers during the morning and evening commutes every day.

BART experienced several large protests that turned into riots after a white transit officer shot unarmed black commuter Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009. The officer resigned from BART and was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.