The criticism of BART for shutting down cellphone service to prevent protesters from communicating about police locations has been nearly as hysterical as the protesters themselves — including, we’re sorry to say, from state Sen. Leland Yee.
The over-the-top rhetoric from civil libertarians, law professors and the cyber-anarchist group Anonymous has included calling BART’s brief disruption of cellphone service “Orwellian.” Naysayers compared BART officials to ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and accused the transit agency of engaging in censorship, cutting off the free flow of information, violating protesters’ First Amendment rights and endangering BART riders.
While this is the usual hyperbole from the usual suspects on the left, it’s disappointing to see Yee, who wants to be San Francisco’s next mayor, join in.
“I am shocked that BART thinks they can use authoritarian control tactics,” Yee said. “BART’s decision was not only a gross violation of free speech rights; it was irresponsible and compromised public safety. Riders need cellphone coverage to call on police and medical personnel during an emergency. How many more lives need to be put at risk because of inappropriate actions by BART officials?”
It’s sad to see Yee throw in his lot with the protesters using control tactics to disrupt BART service, rather than siding with the BART riders, most of whom merely want to go home in peace after a long day at work.
BART’s first and foremost duty is to provide safe, reliable transportation for its 350,000 daily riders. If shutting down cellphone service for several hours can prevent planned protests, as occurred last Thursday, or thwart the coordination and escalation of those protests, BART is well within its rights to do so. In fact, it would be irresponsible for BART not to implement cellphone disruption in such a situation.
As for Yee’s faux concern about public safety, every BART station has white courtesy telephones and one or more station agents available for notifying police or medical personnel in an emergency. In fact, police may already be in the station because cellphone service is only cut when a protest is expected.
If Yee were truly concerned about public safety, he would applaud BART for trying to do everything it can to prevent out-of-control protesters from climbing on trains, blocking the doors, banging on windows, preventing trains from leaving, overcrowding platforms and screaming ugly, provocative slogans.
The civil-libertarian arguments about BART engaging in censorship and abridging free speech are ludicrous. There is no constitutionally guaranteed right to underground cellphone service. Up until a few years ago no such service existed, yet somehow BART riders managed to survive. In fact, many riders would appreciate a commute without having to listen to a loud, obnoxious cellphone conversation.
Just as you’re not allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, anarchist groups should not be allowed to use cellphones to coordinate a riot in a crowded subway station. BART should be applauded for doing what it can to prevent that, and Yee should agree.
Examiner contributor Dave Roberts is editor of the Antioch Herald.