Despite a federal investigation, a threatened lawsuit by civil libertarians, and criticism from employees and board members, BART management is standing by its controversial tactics for keeping protesters from disrupting service.
On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission said it would investigate BART’s disabling of cellphone and wireless Internet service Thursday in four downtown stations to prevent activists from communicating with one another.
Since the July 3 fatal shooting of Charles Hill by agency police officers, activists have staged occasional protests at BART stations, including a July 11 event that caused major delays.
Despite howls that the communication shutdown violated free speech rights, BART spokesman Linton Johnson defended the action Monday, saying some passengers’ right to safety outweighed others’ right to protest. He called the decision “gut-wrenching,” but said it was the only way to ensure passenger safety.
On Monday, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Linda Lye said her group would consider legal action if BART continued disabling telecommunications. She said government agencies can bar protests that present a clear and present danger, but depriving BART patrons of telecommunications service was an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech rights.
“This is an example of government shutting down speech it doesn’t like,” Lye said. “It’s a drastic and unlawful action.”
Several members of BART’s board — which was not told about the decision in advance — said the agency made a mistake.
“It’s dangerous for activists to amass in a train boarding platform,” said board member Tom Radulovich. “But to shut down cellphone service was a bit of an overreaction, and it has energized a whole new group of people to target BART.”
Director James Fang said the decision was made in good faith, for the safety of passengers, but carried out too hastily. Board President Bob Franklin said the agency should have informed passengers that they were entering a no-cellphone area.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents 900 BART workers, issued a statement Monday asking regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission to conduct an investigation of BART’s management practices.
Union President Antonette Bryant said the cell shutdown was the latest in a string of baffling decisions made by BART in recent months.
BART has reached out to the FBI to help defend itself from hackers, but the agency refused to release any additional details about how it plans to protect customers’ personal info.
On Sunday, an activist collective called Anonymous hacked into myBART.org, a website that contains the personal information of 55,000 members. Anonymous then posted the info of at least 2,400 users on a separate website.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson said the agency is working with the FBI to beef up its online security to prevent future attacks. However, during a teleconference with the media Monday, Johnson did not say whether BART has contacted private online security agencies, and he did not release the last time its website was audited for safety purposes.
He said BART was not at fault for the incident, and blame for the cyber attacks should lie solely with Anonymous.
July 3: BART police officers fatally shoot Charles Hill after the 45-year-old man allegedly attacked them with knives and a bottle.
July 11: Activists storm the boarding platform at BART’s Civic Center station, causing delays of up to 30 minutes on 95 different trains.
Thursday: BART shuts down cellphone and wireless Internet service at four downtown stations to deter a planned protest.
Monday: FCC announces that it’s gathering information on the Aug. 11 incident. BART defends action, says it will deploy such tactics in future.