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BART drafts new policy on disruption of cellphone service

October 19, 2011 |  3:15 pm

A demonstrator joins a protest that followed a BART restriction on cellphone service.

The San Francisco Bay Area's regional transit authority has drafted a policy that would ban the blocking of cellphone service to commuters in all but the most extreme situations.

Bay Area Rapid Transit District officials are seeking public input on the draft, which its board of directors will take up Oct. 27. It comes 2 1/2 months after the agency temporarily turned off service on its trains in an effort to quash a planned demonstration against BART police violence.

The move gained national attention and condemnation from 1st Amendment advocates, who compared it to the actions of repressive governments in the Middle East.

The draft policy was crafted with input from the American Civil Liberties Union, BART officials said. It deems cellphone communications "a valuable and important service" to passengers and says service can be temporarily interrupted only in "the most extraordinary circumstances that threaten the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public, the destruction of District property, or the substantial disruption of public transit service."

The service cutoff would have to be narrowly tailored to the threat and have a likelihood of preventing it. Examples of "extraordinary circumstances" include "strong evidence" that cellphones might be used to trigger explosives, to endanger people through hostage situations or other criminal activity, or to "facilitate specific plans or attempts to destroy District property or substantially disrupt public transit services."

The policy also says that BART is "fully committed" to free speech "in the areas of its stations where it can be done safely and without interference with the District's primary mission of providing safe, efficient and reliable public transportation services."

BART officials turned off service in mid-August to avert a protest that had not yet materialized because an earlier action planned by the same groups had flourished due to cellphone communication. Protesters in that action used their phones to relay information about stations with the least police presence. They stopped trains from running and one protester jumped on a train roof, risking a fall onto the electrified third rail.

At the time, BART officials insisted that they controlled the technology and had the right to turn it off to ensure the safety of commuters.

The action triggered more protests over BART's purported free speech crackdown by the hacker activist group Anonymous. BART officials managed to control those protests without turning off cellphone service.


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Photo: A demonstrator joins a protest that followed a BART restriction on cellphone service. Credit: David Paul Morris / Bloomberg