Green Room

SF Transit Police Jam Cell Phone Reception to Disrupt Protest

posted at 2:02 pm on August 13, 2011 by

In order to subvert planned demonstrations over a shooting by transit police, San Francisco transit officials blocked shut down cell phone reception transmission in train stations for three hours last Thursday.

Officials with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, confirmed on Friday that they had shut down electrical power to cellular towers in four stations during rush hour, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The purpose of the blackout was to disrupt protesters’ plans to use mobile devices to coordinate a demonstration on train platforms.

BART officials insist their tactics were legal because they thwarted a protest in a station, which is not. The only flaw in that argument is that the transit authority’s actions constitute a clear violation of the First Amendment rights, not just of protesters but of uninvolved citizens who were merely trying to get home at the end of a workday.

The demonstrators were protesting the July 3 shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police, who maintain that Hill came at them with a knife. In a statement on its website, BART voiced concerns over the potential dangers of staging a demonstration on a moving train or a station platform:

A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators.

But in its efforts to defuse a dangerous situation, BART was inadvertently creating another one. As one commuter told PCWorld, the decision to disable mobile phone service prevented passengers from calling police or the fire department in case of an emergency.

The day after the planned demonstration, which failed, BART spokesman Jim Allison boasted to reporters, “We had a commute that was safe and without disruption.”

Maybe so, but at what cost to personal freedoms?

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Maybe so, but at what cost to personal freedoms?

Um, none?

uknowmorethanme on August 13, 2011 at 2:30 PM

The day after the planned demonstration, which failed, BART spokesman Jim Allison boasted to reporters, “We had a commute that was safe and without disruption.”

Maybe so, but at what cost to personal freedoms?

Bingo.

Um, none?

uknowmorethanme on August 13, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Maybe if you’re in China.

MadisonConservative on August 13, 2011 at 2:52 PM

Maybe if you’re in China.

MadisonConservative on August 13, 2011 at 2:52 PM

Oh, I see. Not getting a signal on your cell phone is some tyrannical oppression of liberty.

uknowmorethanme on August 13, 2011 at 3:40 PM

Oh, I see. Not getting a signal on your cell phone Getting the signal on your cell phone purposely cut off is some tyrannical oppression of liberty.

uknowmorethanme on August 13, 2011 at 3:40 PM

And incidentally, is against the law in 48 states.

gryphon202 on August 13, 2011 at 4:47 PM

Those who sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither. San Fransisco, and California at large, have the government they deserve.

Cheesecakecrush on August 13, 2011 at 5:02 PM

Maybe so, but at what cost to personal freedoms?

I suppose you would have some other whiny leftist thing to say back to my proposal that these “protesters” should be given the lash.

thuja on August 13, 2011 at 5:06 PM

Oh, I see. Not getting a signal on your cell phone is some tyrannical oppression of liberty.

uknowmorethanme on August 13, 2011 at 3:40 PM

Are you kidding? If people lose their cable TV for an hour you’d think aliens were stealing their oxygen…

Uncle Sams Nephew on August 13, 2011 at 5:50 PM

Are there no pay phones at the stations? What about fire alarms — you know, the “pull in case of fire” things? The safety argument seems less than thin; it’s contrived and artificial, as before the days of everyone carrying an idiot box, people got along quite well.

There is no Constitutional right to a cell phone. Now, either the government had the cooperation of the operating companies (WHO OWN THE CELL SYSTEM) or had a court order or other legal authority to compel the cell companies to cut service. If that bothers you, address that.

I’m not sure the would-be “protestors,” had their rights violated, either. They were going to use a third-party’s property (the cell system) to coordinate their actions, and that third party refused (or was ordered to refuse) to provide them with service. They could have protested anyway, but, inexplicably, thought the absence of a cell network was an impediment.

Their choice. Their loss.

Crawford on August 13, 2011 at 6:09 PM

I’m not sure the would-be “protestors,” had their rights violated, either. They were going to use a third-party’s property (the cell system) to coordinate their actions, and that third party refused (or was ordered to refuse) to provide them with service. They could have protested anyway, but, inexplicably, thought the absence of a cell network was an impediment.

Crawford on August 13, 2011 at 6:09 PM

+1. This is not much different than a file-sharing service yanking pirated software or porn. There is no ‘right’ for you to make them serve you at all times and in all situations.

Uncle Sams Nephew on August 13, 2011 at 6:14 PM

Blocking and jamming cell phone signals is a federal offense. And cell towers are usually private property, although the land they’re built on is usually rented.

But because the government did it to the libruls, it’s ok?

angelat0763 on August 13, 2011 at 7:54 PM

But because the government did it to the libruls, it’s ok?

angelat0763 on August 13, 2011 at 7:54 PM

It’s not “libruls”. These “protesters” wanted to be utter as*holes to other commuters. We aren’t just talking about inconvenience either. Some of the other commuters probably would have been victims of violence. I’m just utterly sick of “protesters” getting away with seriously injuring other people without them being at any risk to themselves. Anyone who beats up someone weaker than themselves deserves a sporting chance of being forced to face a bigger bully or being lashed by the state. I was bullied enough in middle school. I don’t need to face it as an adult, as the left and the more stupid parts of the right wish for me.

thuja on August 13, 2011 at 10:52 PM

It’s not “libruls”. These “protesters” wanted to be utter as*holes to other commuters. We aren’t just talking about inconvenience either. Some of the other commuters probably would have been victims of violence. I’m just utterly sick of “protesters” getting away with seriously injuring other people without them being at any risk to themselves. Anyone who beats up someone weaker than themselves deserves a sporting chance of being forced to face a bigger bully or being lashed by the state. I was bullied enough in middle school. I don’t need to face it as an adult, as the left and the more stupid parts of the right wish for me.

thuja on August 13, 2011 at 10:52 PM

So in the name of “protecting the little people,” you’re okay with violations of federal law and state law in California… Great. Thanks for clearing that up.

gryphon202 on August 13, 2011 at 11:35 PM

The title of this post is, to be blunt, a lie. Cellphone signals were not “jammed.” Neither were the cellphone companies asked or coerced by BART police to “shut down cell towers.”

Here’s a link to the story from the San Francisco Chronicle.

And here is the money quote from that same story:

Contrary to some speculative reports, BART did not jam wireless signals or ask cell phone providers to shut down towers near stations. BART owns and controls the wireless network strung through its subways, and BART police ordered it switched off, after receiving permission from BART interim General Manager Sherwood Wakeman, former general counsel for the transit district.

If BART owns it, BART can turn it off. It’s pretty simple.

Dukeboy01 on August 14, 2011 at 12:17 AM

If BART owns it, BART can turn it off. It’s pretty simple.

Dukeboy01 on August 14, 2011 at 12:17 AM

Willful disruption of cell phone service is a federal crime, and a state crime in California. To my best knowledge, there’s no exception in either law for BART or any other government entity. Californians, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

gryphon202 on August 14, 2011 at 12:34 AM

So in the name of “protecting the little people,” you’re okay with violations of federal law and state law in California… Great. Thanks for clearing that up.

gryphon202 on August 13, 2011 at 11:35 PM

Whatever about your stupid comment. I’m sick to death of permissive laws that enable the bullies and disregard the victims. The people who are kicked in the nuts by your special friends have feelings too.

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 12:42 AM

Whatever about your stupid comment. I’m sick to death of permissive laws that enable the bullies and disregard the victims. The people who are kicked in the nuts by your special friends have feelings too.

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 12:42 AM

Well let me go out on a limb here once again and point out you seem to be okay with government literally breaking laws in the name of protecting the little people. You haven’t addressed that assertion yet. So where do you draw the line? This isn’t some theoretical 1st amendment trial balloon we’re talking about here. I’m “stupid” because I know exactly what the laws state, and you don’t seem to care…

gryphon202 on August 14, 2011 at 1:29 AM

Back in the halcyon days of the 1990s, New York City won a lawsuit over the right to evict panhandlers from its subway system, because while the subway was municipally owned, the court ruled that did not confer on the panhandlers the right to be in the subway and ask people for money, in the same way they had the 1st Amendment right to do it upstairs on the public sidewalk.

The San Francisco cell phone kerfuffle is a similar situation. If the far left in New York had gotten their way in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the subway had been made free (as the Staten Island Ferry is there), then you could have the argument that since there’s no barrier to entry, the government in turn has no right to bar people from access to the area. While it’s amazing that the liberals in San Fran have not eliminated the BART fare yet, the same situation holds true — BART limits who they allow onto part of their property based on the ability to come up with the money to get past the fare gate.

As long as they segregate who is allowed on the system, BART also maintains the right to determine what is done on that system, including the sending and receiving of cell phone calls.

(You also have the public safety aspect to think about — unlike a street, a subway platform has five-foot drop-offs with high-voltage third rails and really big metal-wheeled railcars entering and leaving stations as speeds of up to 30 mph. Allowing a bunch of protestors to create the possibility of a disturbance that could result in people being pushed onto or jumping onto the tracks just opens up a lawsuitpalooza for BART if they were seen to have had advance knowledge of the action, but did nothing. You can’t keep a crazy person or an angry leftist from going out on their own and tossing some innocent schlub onto the tracks, but at least this way BART does give itself a bit of cover in that they tried to head off the protests via the temporary cell service shutdown).

jon1979 on August 14, 2011 at 2:44 AM

Well let me go out on a limb here once again and point out you seem to be okay with government literally breaking laws in the name of protecting the little people. You haven’t addressed that assertion yet. So where do you draw the line? This isn’t some theoretical 1st amendment trial balloon we’re talking about here. I’m “stupid” because I know exactly what the laws state, and you don’t seem to care…

gryphon202 on August 14, 2011 at 1:29 AM

Let me just point out that if what the police did is so gosh darn illegal there will be an investigation. We are talking California here.

In the big picture, we need to stop coddling bullies and ignoring violence. Disrupting a violent flash mob in the way that the SF police did is brilliant. It stopped in a very minimal way restless youth looking for an excuse to beat up grandmothers. Is there anything that the police is allowed to do to protect the innocent in your world? Or is the opportunity to be viciously beaten by bored thugs the price of freedom in your world?

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 8:40 AM

Maybe so, but at what cost to personal freedoms?

Great question.

Next question: What is a reasonable method or cause to pierce the sanctity of personal freedoms in order to maintain public safety?

Next question: Is a cell phone still a cell phone when it is used as a tool for organizing a chaotic disturbance or is it akin to a Molotov cocktail?

Next question: Would citizens or authorities be Constitutionally compelled to stand by with tolerance and allow a cell phone conversation where a crime is being commissioned?

ericdijon on August 14, 2011 at 9:48 AM

Or is the opportunity to be viciously beaten by bored thugs the price of freedom in your world?

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 8:40 AM

Tyranny always starts with “it’s a good idea…”

And freedom wouldn’t be so contentious if it were easy. If we’re not free to be stupid, we’re not free. And if BART needs to change the law to address issues like this, it’s up to the representatives of the people in the Bay. I just see this as a potential slippery slope. Where do you draw the line?

Next question: What is a reasonable method or cause to pierce the sanctity of personal freedoms in order to maintain public safety?

Considering that federal and California state law expressly forbid jamming cell phone communications, I’d say that’s not it.

Next question: Is a cell phone still a cell phone when it is used as a tool for organizing a chaotic disturbance or is it akin to a Molotov cocktail?

The law doesn’t currently address that, so I’d say the answer to that question is rather self-evident.

Next question: Would citizens or authorities be Constitutionally compelled to stand by with tolerance and allow a cell phone conversation where a crime is being commissioned?

ericdijon on August 14, 2011 at 9:48 AM

Citizens don’t have the power to jam/otherwise disrupt cell phone communications. If we try, we get arrested for it. Authorities have the power to do it, but not lawfully as the law now stands.

gryphon202 on August 14, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Just wondering..is being without a cell phone or other communication device a crime?

So what happens when:

1) Nobody with a phone calls to report an emergency or,

2) Nobody on the train has a phone to call with?

How did crime and emergencies get reported before the first cell phone was put into service? And why weren’t the cell phone inventors charged with a crime for not inventing the damn things earlier?

Would it be a suppression of ‘rights’ for the cell phone service provider to remove the antenna’s from the subway?

If not, why not, and then tell me what the difference is from

1) a First Amendment perspective and

2) the duty of law enforcement to protect (which includes preventing crimes or criminal activity)

BobMbx on August 14, 2011 at 10:44 AM

As one of those commuters who relies on BART and who uses the downtown SF stations, I appreciated being able to get home. I didn’teven realize I had no cell reception.

Cell reception in underground BART stations is relatively recent and was controversial when first introduced, as some are addicted to long, loud personal conversations and BART was an oasis of silence.

BTW, there are no pay phones on the platform. There is a white phone that contacts the station agent as well as pull alarms for fires.

Freedom of speech has traditionally included the restriction that one may not cry “Fire!” In a crowded theater. I see this in the same vein. No one was stopping a protest; cell phone service was unaffected aboveground; public safety of passengers and protesters was assured.2

March Hare on August 14, 2011 at 12:14 PM

Or is the opportunity to be viciously beaten by bored thugs the price of freedom in your world?

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 8:40 AM

Tyranny always starts with “it’s a good idea…”

And freedom wouldn’t be so contentious if it were easy. If we’re not free to be stupid, we’re not free. And if BART needs to change the law to address issues like this, it’s up to the representatives of the people in the Bay. I just see this as a potential slippery slope. Where do you draw the line?

Next question: What is a reasonable method or cause to pierce the sanctity of personal freedoms in order to maintain public safety?

Considering that federal and California state law expressly forbid jamming cell phone communications, I’d say that’s not it.

Obviously, it is not easy to get to right the balance between the law and freedom, but that is no reason not to try and leave our citizens at the mercy of vicious gangs. Part of the reason for the difficulty is that we can afford to be more indulgent when the threat is less. A few kids overturning garbage cans is appropriately met with less force than a riot should be met with. The demonstrators in SF had fantasies of London before their eyes. [No, I have interviewed them, but I do I have a passing acquaintance with my culture.] BART was in an emergency situation. I suspect and hope that the public officials have greater power to confront rioting emergencies. They should have them, if they don’t.

As far as BART shutting down four cell phone towers that it pays the electricity for, I don’t see even a hint of a problem. BART should be under no more obligation to provide cell phone service than is an airline company required to provide cell phone service on a plane. State sponsorship of BART shouldn’t matter here.

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 12:27 PM

It does look like this was a case of BART shutting down its underground cell phone service, as opposed to the city authorities having power shut down to commercial microwave towers.

I don’t think service providers would just sit still for the latter action. Doing that really would deny a lot of people 911 access, and I have a hard time believing the courts would uphold the action in the inevitable lawsuit that would follow.

This action by BART raises interesting questions, of course. On the face of it, it’s uncomfortably close to something the Iranian mullahs would do. It suggests questions we ought to know the answer to, like what the anti-terrorist plans of our municipal subway systems are. If there’s an emerging threat, are they going to shut down cell phone service for everyone who happens to be in them at the time?

On the other hand, the city/county do have the authority to prevent protests at transit stations. I’m 100% behind them on that. I do wonder if it’s necessary to shut down cell service in the subway to achieve that goal. Presumably the service shut-down was intended to make the job of the police and transit security guards easier. Is that a trade-off we can live with?

Without having looked into the matter closely, I have no real heartburn with the curfew that’s being imposed in Philadelphia to combat the IT-enabled flash-mob robberies. (The heartburn I have, if any, is that there is a better option: put the law on the side of armed proprietors and security guards. The flash mobs would stop after one episode.)

I come down on the other side of the BART cell-phone shut-down: viscerally, I don’t like it. I think the transit system has the authority to do it, but I don’t like the precedent it sets.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2011 at 12:31 PM

Note to readers: I have emended the first sentence of this article to reflect the “truth.” My misstatement was not the result of the point in the ever-changing news stream where I picked up the thread of this story, but rather a willful and deliberate attempt to misinform readers, as commenter Dukeboy01 suggests.

I apologize and promise not to lie again.

Howard Portnoy on August 14, 2011 at 1:01 PM

Howard Portnoy on August 14, 2011 at 1:01 PM

I knew you’d man up, HP. All that purposeful lying and willful misleading and deliberately making people believe the totally and egregiously wrong thing just isn’t like you.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2011 at 1:27 PM

I knew you’d man up, HP. All that purposeful lying and willful misleading and deliberately making people believe the totally and egregiously wrong thing just isn’t like you.

Thanks, J.E. This truth telling thing is tougher than I imagined.

Howard Portnoy on August 14, 2011 at 1:47 PM

Obviously, it is not easy to get to right the balance between the law and freedom, but that is no reason not to try and leave our citizens at the mercy of vicious gangs.

thuja on August 14, 2011 at 12:27 PM

So when they start cracking down on the Tea Party by calling it a “vicious gang,” how will you feel about that? You have to start by defining “vicious gang.” If the law does that elsewhere, and it does, it should be able to clarify the circumstances under which cell towers can be disabled. Currently, neither federal law nor California state law makes such a distinction. I would not be opposed on-principle to such a distinction being made if the law were passed by a majority of the people’s representatives; I don’t live in California.

gryphon202 on August 14, 2011 at 2:39 PM

Flip a coin. There are valid points on both sides of this one, but if BART owns the cellular equipment, it seems to me that shutting it down would be their prerogative. It’s not like the passengers pay BART for cell service as they would Sprint, Verizon, etc.; it is a service that is not necessary to their primary function. If it saved lives, which it likely did, it seems worth the price, although there is the slippery slope argument to consider.

Like I said, flip a coin. This is not an easy one, even after some consideration.

hillbillyjim on August 14, 2011 at 4:00 PM

The only flaw in that argument is that the transit authority’s actions constitute a clear violation of the First Amendment rights

Sir, that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

Cell phone towers are now a First Amendment right? Those cell towers are operated within the tunnels for the convenience of passengers.

Being unable to use a device of convenience is not subverting someone’s First Amendment rights.

ButterflyDragon on August 14, 2011 at 6:24 PM

l live in the Bay Area and am a regular BART rider. I can tell you that there is ZERO sympathy for these leftist agitators. Go to the SF Chron today and you’ll see an article about his event, and the comments are 90 to 1 against the “protesters”. Frankly, we are sick of leftist twits who think they have the right to disrupt anything at any time for whatever cause du jour.

It is an outrage that tens of thousands of BART riders can be held hostage on trains for up to two hours because “protesters” stand in the car doorways keeping the trains from moving. If these actions keep up, someone is going to be seriouly hurt when a pissed off passenger slugs on of them.

T

sdillard on August 14, 2011 at 6:33 PM

Shutting down power won’t take cell sites off the air. They have at least some battery back-up at all cell sites. Depending on how many strings they have and how busy the site is, it’s usually 2-8 hours worth, or so.

The main issue here would be with the FCC. Wireless providers pay top dollar for their licenses, and intentionally preventing them from using their licensed frequencies is serious business.

forest on August 14, 2011 at 6:49 PM

So in the name of “protecting the little people,” you’re okay with violations of federal law and state law in California… Great.

Awwww….shut yer pie hole. You’d be the first to whine & sue if your butt was somehow “inconvenienced” or your commute was disrupted by the mobs.

There’s no 1st amendment rights to coordinate a riot by some filthy anarchists.

Twana on August 14, 2011 at 6:56 PM

If BART owns it, BART can turn it off. It’s pretty simple.

Dukeboy01 on August 14, 2011 at 12:17 AM

Hadn’t seen this part before. BART can turn off shared in-building DAS systems, unlike the normal cell sites I was talking about before.

Only problem with this is that it’s a federal offense and no doubt a breach of the “interference” section of the leases. It was an unwise and illegal move on their part.

forest on August 14, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Shutting down power won’t take cell sites off the air. They have at least some battery back-up at all cell sites. Depending on how many strings they have and how busy the site is, it’s usually 2-8 hours worth, or so.

The main issue here would be with the FCC. Wireless providers pay top dollar for their licenses, and intentionally preventing them from using their licensed frequencies is serious business.

forest on August 14, 2011 at 6:49 PM

It is my understanding these are cell towers within the tunnels (due to crappy to non-existent coverage by regular cell phone companies) owned by BART.

BART has the full authority to cut off it’s own cell towers.

ButterflyDragon on August 14, 2011 at 7:04 PM

It’s the People’s Republic of San Francisco! Who cares? They built their communist utopia and should be surprised when it acts like one.

MikeA on August 14, 2011 at 8:32 PM

ButterflyDragon on August 14, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Correct, they are in-building shared systems. the reason cell coverage is “crappy” in tunnels is because – they are tunnels. The only way to do it is with DAS or leaky coax systems and there’s lots of complications.

BTW – if anybody is unhappy about poor coverage, chances are it’s because of local government NIMBYs and not because your carrier is unwilling to spend the money to achieve the coverage. Before slagging them off, check and see what the local ZHB has rejected or read the ordinance, which is likely so onerous it verges on being a prohibition on cell towers.

forest on August 14, 2011 at 8:35 PM

Sounds like to me a buncha jerks decided a “protest” would be appropriate then the mob fizzeled. Oh, BTW, the in-tube cell phones were cut off.

Frankly, my dear, your mob was a failure and I’m appreciative of that. Don’t care the reason jerks couldn’t FU an otherwise lousy commute. Jerks have a very limited 1st Amendment in my world despite twenty years of ruling “prevision is protected”.

Your “rights” stop where my nose begins. Shout at me and expect a response. Your shout is called assault. Mys response is self protection.

Caststeel on August 14, 2011 at 10:10 PM

The only flaw in that argument is that the transit authority’s actions constitute a clear violation of the First Amendment rights, not just of protesters but of uninvolved citizens who were merely trying to get home at the end of a workday.

Explain how this is some kind of first amendment violation. BART has every right to control what goes on inside it’s tunnels and stations in order to promote safety and security within the law. If they are in violation of laws those laws are CA laws which pertain to broad rules about suspending 911 service and given the range of alternatives to report emergencies on BART I think BART will likely win any legal challenge to it’s three hour suspension of cell phone use in the four major stations affected.

Your understanding of the First Amendment rights needs some work Howard.

lexhamfox on August 15, 2011 at 2:19 AM

Sorry, B.A.R.T. has no right to break the law, even in Kalifornia.

Last time I checked, they were not accorded the rights of illegal aliens.

trl on August 15, 2011 at 4:04 AM

To all the people wailing about BART ‘breaking the law’: BART is not a private citizen; they can do things you and I can’t. Get the he11 over it already.

Uncle Sams Nephew on August 15, 2011 at 8:07 AM

Your understanding of the First Amendment rights needs some work Howard.

There are quite a few of us who could benefit from your keen insights.

http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/649757/appalling%3A_bart_shuts_down_cell_service_to_squash_protest/

Howard Portnoy on August 15, 2011 at 10:32 AM