Free speech, public safety, and cell phones

Consider this scenario: You own a business. For some reason or another, people are angry at your business and decide to protest against it. The protesters tap into a service that your company provides to organize disruptive activities meant to hurt said company. Should the company be allowed to cut off that service?

Now, let's put some facts to this story. San Francisco's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system has been on the receiving end of some heavy duty public discord this summer. In July, crowds shut down three of BART's train stations as they protested the shooting of a knife-wielding transient by a BART police officer. Last week, organizers were planning another protest against the city's transit system. However, BART shut down its underground, cell phone network in select stations to prevent people from organizing activities that would negatively impact train activity.

Keep in mind, BART actually owns and controls the wireless network that services the subterranean train tunnels. It didn't have to work with a cell phone provider to jam signals or cut service. It owns the system and simply turned it off. As a result, the protest didn't happen. People were unable to organize activities in real-time, tweet the locations of BART police, or use mobile devices in any way in several train stations. That, in essence, put the kibosh on the protest before it ever started. The American Civil Liberties Union cried foul; BART defended it's actions saying protests on station platforms would put the public at risk.

Were transit authorities truly concerned about commuter safety or did they just wanted to avoid a protest? Only a few people really know the answer to that. But, if it fair to say any business must continue to offer a service that is being exploited by people who are trying to do that business harm? Of course, this issue gets stickier when we consider that BART is a service of the city of San Francisco--obviously funded by taxpayer dollars. (Note: As a result of the recent wireless shutdown, another protest has been organized for this Monday.)

What do YOU think? Is the BART action the same as the government ordering social media shutdowns in Egypt and other countries that have faced civil unrest? Should BART, or any other company, be legally obligated to maintain a service even if it goes against the business's best interests? Does it make a difference if the entity owns the service or mandates another company cut access? What if that business is affiliated with the government?

No jammed signals here! Sound off below and exercise your right to free speech!


  1. Interesting post, Amber. I don't know all the facts, but I am a former BART customer. Anyway, I'm for  peaceful protests, but not protests which inhibit a company from carrying out its business or keep customers from getting what they paid for. I would think there would be laws in place to enforce peaceful protests, but I guess it's a matter of locale (and current economy). On the other hand, shutting down wireless service to all in the area in order to keep protesters from communicating seems like the worst solution to the problem. It sounds like BART needs to rethink their strategy on handling protests and resolving disputes.

  2. Hey Karen. Yeah, it's a sticky wicket!

    Apparently, the wireless issue got people into an uproar so there's another protest scheduled for Monday. BART hasn't said whether it will cut wireless service on Monday, but it has said protesters are welcome to gather outside of the fare gates, away from the platforms (I can actually see how lots of people on a platform could be potentially dangerous).

    Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation. It's not a cut and dry issue, is it?

  3. No cut and dried issue for sure, Amber. I do remember protests while I lived in Chicago that police seemed to handle well. The protesters were focused on staying peaceful, and the police were focused on seeing the protesters stayed that way. :) That was before the economic downturn and budget cuts though.

  4. I used to be a frequent business visitor to San Francisco, and I have several cousins who live there now and use BART everyday. Like Karen, I think peaceful protests are important. But the BART stations are not an appropriate location--I would be concerned that riders wouldn't have easy exit access during a protest. I'm not sure what I think about cutting of wireless access, but I will say that my primary concern is the safety of the BART riders. 

  5. I have to side with BART on this one. I might get angry if I couldn't receive or place a call but I'll get over it and probably keep riding BART (if I lived in SF). But can you imagine the horror of people even possibly getting harmed or killed because of the action of one not so thoughtful protestor pumped on adrenaline? BART could have shut down the whole shebang...stranding thousands in the process. I believe in the right to protest peacefully (and in conjunction safely), but this really could have been a disaster!

    The protests in Egypt, by the way, were different. The organizers were not the violent ones, the government had the leader and resources to create the violence to control the protestors. The organizers were not just protesting the police shooting of an individual, but instead undemocratic practices waged against the community of citizens making up their nation.

    Social media is changing the world every single day. 

  6. Hey Marianne! I have no problem with protests in the least, either. I think we're all kind of ending up on the same page. Rider safety around speeding trains is paramount. However, the issue of cutting communication, especially in light of recent global events, just seems questionable in some respect.

    BART has said protesters are allowed outside the fare gates and although I hate the concept of free speech areas, I think given the nature of the business and the safety implications, that sounds like a valid compromise.

    Thanks for adding to the dialogue, Marianne!

  7. I think you're right, Cheri. Crowds sway as people move and it would oh so easy for someone to fall off the platform or get shoved in front of a train. Nothing can spoil the message of a protest like a death! (I'm reminded of the guy who died in a motorcycle accident as he was riding without a helmet in a protest against motorcycle helmets! Oh, the irony!).

    And, yes, you're so right. Social media is changing our worlds big time!

    Thanks for chiming in, Cheri. Good to see you online again. :-)

  8. At first I was a bit confused about the hub-bub since here in LA there is no cell reception whatsoever on the Red Line. If people want to protest BART, do it safely and peacefully above ground so that the commuters can get to work. Just my two cents.

  9. I read that BART was one of the first to add wireless service for commuters.

    All I can say is whether I was a protester or a commuter, there's no way I'd want to tempt fate and end up on the train rails. Speeding trains and scary pits aren't anything to be messed with.

  10. I know, I know, you thought for sure I would be at the butt and boobs post, huh? It has been a busy week........

    I think you can make strong arguments for both sides of this; but when it comes to public safety sometimes drastic measures have to be taken. However, who gets to decide 'what' measures and 'how' drastic? 

    I think we go too far sometimes to be politically correct and make sure nobody's rights are violated and we didn't offend anyone, but probably much easier for me to say as a pasty white, middle class male. I mentioned this in another comment, and until you walk a mile in the shoes of the offended, sometimes 'no comment' is best.

    My vote, public safety comes first................period. 

  11. You're a man of many surprises, Bill! I am delightfully surprised that you refrained from commenting on the B&B post. Looks like little Billy is growing up! ;-)

    I'm with you on the politically correct thing. Frankly, I don't want special treatment because I'm a woman. And, why can't people say the truth anymore? Sometimes facts are just facts. Everyone is just at the ready to be offended and file a lawsuit. There's got to be a happy medium.

    Thanks for weighing in. Duly noted. Another check mark in the public safety column!

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