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BART's Board OKs New Cell Phone Service Interruption Policy

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, December 1 2011

Photo: Lissette Alvarez/ Flickr

The board of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District voted unanimously Thursday to adopt a new policy explicitly authorizing the district to disrupt cell phone service, in certain situations, to riders on trains and at platforms.

BART became the center of a national controversy this summer after it shut down cell phone service Aug. 11, the day it expected activists to protest the July 3 shooting death of Charles Hill, a homeless man, at the hands of BART police. That action itself spawned an entirely new cycle of protests, as well as the interest of the Federal Communications Commission, in part because in many circumstances disrupting telecommunications services is actually against the law.

Under the new policy — which, like the decision to shut off service to riders, is unprecedented for BART — the transit district reserves the right to cut off service when its managers deem that "there is strong evidence of imminent lawful activity that threatens the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public," among other things.

BART's mission is to provide "safe, efficient and reliable public transit services," the policy states, and situates its communications policy in the framework of that mission.

"The District is also fully committed to its existing rights of expression in areas of its stations where it can be done safely and without interference with the District's primary mission," it reads.

The policy also states that BART will establish a protocol for the process of shutting down mobile phone service, and immediately report the planned interruption to first responder personnel as well as to its board.

The board had previously considered approving the policy in October, but one board member wanted to work on the document to make it more precise.

Board President Bob Franklin said that BART had consulted with the American Civil Liberties Union on the language of the policy.

Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said that the group had provided comments, which BART accepted. She added that the ACLU will be keeping tabs on BART to ensure that it actually implements its new policy.

"It's better for everyone when there are clear guidelines," Lye said. "You don't preemptively shut down a protest even though there might be police action."

The new policy adopted Thursday also incorporates a couple of sentences provided by staff at the Federal Communications Commission, which had been petitioned by a coalition of public interest groups to declare the shutdown unlawful.

The first sentence specifies that BART acknowledge that any "interruption" of cell phone service poses "serious risk to public safety," and that "open communications networks are critical to our economy and democracy and should be preserved to the fullest extent possible."

The second sentence specifies that any decision to implement a temporary interruption must take determine that the public benefits outweigh the potential risks imposed by the interruption.

Those additions arrived at the last minute on Wednesday afternoon from the FCC, said Bob Franklin, the board's president, at the Thursday morning board meeting in Oakland.

The vote comes after months of protests at Bay Area BART stations, usually during peak rush hours. In addition to the interest of the FCC, BART's initial decision to disrupt mobile phone service ignited criticism around the world. Cardozo School of Law Professor and former White House advisor Susan Crawford, among others, compared BART to Middle Eastern dictators.

Crawford warned that if the FCC didn't take any action, BART's actions would inspire other local authorities to behave in the same way when protests arose.

Part of the anger behind BART's action was how apparently arbitrary the BART managers' decision was. At the time, there did not seem to be any threat of violence from protesters.

But BART managers said that they were worried at protestors were going to chain themselves to objects within the stations, and that one person had climbed on top of a train during a previous protest.