Transit agency head defends cell service shutoff

Transit agency head defends cell service shutoff (AP)
An unidentified protester uses his cell phone during a protest at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. Cellphone service was operating as protesters gathered at the San Francisco subway station during rush-hour several days after transit officials shut wireless service to head off another demonstration. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

(AP) -- The head of the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency is defending the system's move to cut wireless service to thwart a planned protest last week. But he says the tactic likely won't be used again.

BART board president Bob Franklin says was left on during a second demonstration Monday night because the tactic was unlikely to prevent protesters from gathering at San Francisco's Civic Center station.

Four days earlier, the agency turned off the service in its stations after protest organizers said they would issue last-minute instructions through social media and text messages. The demonstration had been planned in response to a fatal BART police shooting.

Franklin says BART lawyers had signed off on the plan, but says he expects the agency will be sued.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

As protesters massed on the Civic Center subway platform as Monday rush hour commenced, transit police had already decided to keep the system's wireless network operating.

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

The move Thursday put the transit agency in the middle of a raging political debate between free speech and safety. But that's not why police decided to leave on the wireless network.

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

"There wasn't a need to turn off the cell phone coverage," Franklin said/

Franklin said he supported the action Thursday, 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 as 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 planned demonstration, called to protest the July 3 shooting death by BART police of a 45-year-old transient they alleged lunged at officers with a knife.

Organizers posted instructions for the demonstration on Web sites and on Twitter, indicating more instructions would be issued electronically right before the demonstration was to start. So Johnson proposed police cut wireless power in BART's San Francisco stations. Neither Johnson or 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 plan.

"It stopped the protest," Franklin said of the Thursday demonstration that never happened.

Franklin said and BART's lawyers believe its action Monday were legal way to ensure safety on its crowded platforms. The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation decried the power outage, but said they aren't planning to file lawsuits.

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 the Bay Area Rapid Transit system's wireless service shutdown last week after the agency refused a repeat amid rush-hour protests that shuttered four San Francisco stations.

The American Civil Liberties Union met with BART's police chief late Monday even as demonstrators protested the agency's action to block wireless reception Thursday to disrupt a planned protest against police brutality. After the meeting, ACLU attorney Michael Risher said the organization had no plans to file a lawsuit, but he remained disappointed that he didn't extract a pledge from BART to refrain from similar tactics in the future. He said he planned to continue meeting with the agency.

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.

Cellphone service was operating Monday night as an estimated 50 protesters gathered on the Civic Center Station platform chanting "no justice, no peace" shortly after 5 p.m. Thirty minutes later, police in riot gear and wielding batons closed the station and cleared the platform after protesters briefly delayed an east-bound train from departing.

From Civic Center, the protesters were joined by more demonstrators and marched down San Francisco's Market Street and attempted to enter to more stations. Officials closed those stations as well.

"Once the platform becomes unsafe, we can't jeopardize the safety of patrons and employees," BART Deputy Police Chief Dan Hartwig said.

Hundreds of people stood on the sidewalks and streets outside stations in the city's Financial District on Monday evening. Many of the people appeared to be commuters.

Elijah Sparrow, a protester, called the demonstration "one of the defining battles of the 21st century over who is going to control communication."

BART officials have said their primary concern was to ensure that passengers are safe.

"It's wrong," the ACLU's Risher said. "There were better alternatives to ensure the public's safety."

Former BART director Michael Bernick applauded the move, saying it ensured a safe and uninterrupted commute Thursday night.

"Finally, BART said enough," said Bernick. "BART put its riders and commuters ahead of these protesters and the ACLU."

BART cut power to its wireless nodes Thursday night after learning demonstrators planned to use social media and text messaging to protest police brutality. The tactic appeared to work because no protest occurred.

BART's actions 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.

"We are Anonymous, we are your citizens, we are the people, we do not tolerate oppression from any government agency," the hackers wrote on their own website. "BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people."

BART spokesman Jim Allison said BART has notified the FBI, and that no bank account or credit card information was listed.

BART officials, meanwhile, defended the shutdown of the cell service as a legal approach to ensure commute safety.

A protest last month on a San Francisco platform calling for the dismissal of the transit officers responsible for the July 3 shooting death of a man wielding a knife prompted the closing of one station and caused system-wide delays during rush hour.

Allison said the wireless outage was only for platforms and trains running under the city, places where protests are banned.

By Monday, a growing number of free speech advocates were calling on BART to renounce the tactic, with many calling the action an unconstitutional attempt to stifle lawful protest.

Regardless of its strict legality, Tien said the tactic was unsavory and compared it to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's shutting down access to the Internet in a failed attempt to stop civil unrest.

Bernick, the former BART director, said Northern California governments such as BART have been struggling for years with how to handle vocal political demonstrations that often escalate to violence.

BART and Oakland, in particular, have experienced several large-scale protests that turned into riots after a white transit officer shot the unarmed black commuter Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009.

BART officials said they are 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.

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