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FCC probing BART's shutdown of cellphone service

August 16, 2011 |  7:17 am

BART protests
BART officials have come under increasing fire from First Amendment experts nationwide who say the agency overreached when it shut off cellphone service to thousands of train passengers last week to thwart a protest over police actions.

The ACLU of Northern California sent a letter to BART officials -- copied to the Federal Communications Commission -- demanding that the transit agency swear off the practice. It referred to BART as the "first known government agency in the United States to block cell service in order to disrupt a political protest."  

Late Monday, FCC spokesman Neil Grace said in a statement that the matter was under investigation.

"Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," he said, adding that the commission is gathering information "about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."

Activists held another protest Monday, but cell service remained on.

The president of the agency's board of directors said it would be "a big stretch" to use the cellphone-blackout tactic again.

"It's no longer a BART issue, it's a nationwide issue and the public has to weigh in on it," said Bob Franklin, who confirmed that BART had contacted the FCC to explain its rationale. "That's the difference between our country and other countries. We will have a public dialogue on this and talk about an appropriate use, if it is appropriate."


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Photo: A BART worker, left, tries to move demonstrators away from a train so it can leave the Civic Center station -- one of four downtown San Francisco stations closed during rush hour Monday by protests. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)