By Cody Kitaura/Patch Staff
The next time Bay Area transit officials want to quell a planned protest, it might take them a little bit longer.
For the second year in a row, California lawmakers have passed a bill that would require a government agency to get a court order before cutting off cellphone service, as BART did in 2011 to stop protesters from organizing a demonstration after transit cops killed a knife-wielding homeless man.
“During an emergency, shutting down cell service prevents the public from being able to call 9-1-1, receive emergency wireless alerts, and locate family members,” State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), the bill’s author, said in a statement. “It can also impair first responders’ ability to communicate.”
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last year’s bill, saying it was too limiting. This year's bill, which would allow agencies to seek a court order after the fact in emergency situations, sits on the governor's desk awaiting a signature or a veto. His office has not responded to a request for comment.
BART's 2011 decision was meant to keep protesters from organizing a demonstration in the Civic Center station. Citing the potential for safety concerns due to protesters keeping trains from leaving stations, the agency pulled the plug on underground cellphone antennas at some downtown San Francisco stations for three hours.
While a large protest was partially thwarted, the act arguably brought more attention than a protest would have: National media organizations covered the cellphone blackout, and advocacy groups widely criticized the move.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation likened BART to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who ordered cellphone and Internet service be shut down in his country to silence criticism before he was eventually ousted.
The BART spokesman who came up with the cellphone shutdown idea told the Bay Citizen passengers had been just fine without underground cellphone service for years.
“It is an amenity. We survived for years without cellphone service,” Linton Johnson told the Bay Citizen in August 2011. “Now they’re bitching and complaining that we turned it off for three hours?”
BART contends train platforms are private areas for ticketed passengers only, and protesters can express their First Amendment right to protest in "free areas," before ticket stalls.
In late 2011, the BART Board of Directors adopted a new policy spelling out when the agency can pull the plug on wireless communications. The one-page policy acknowledges interrupting cellphone service poses its own safety risks and should be "interrupted only in the most extraordinary circumstances that threaten the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of public, the destruction of District property, or the substantial disruption of public transit service."
Senate Bill 380, the bill sent to the governor on Sept. 9, would change all that and take the decision out of BART's hands except in cases where there is an "immediate danger of death or great bodily injury" and no time to go to a judge.'Like' Piedmont Patch on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter @PiedmontPatch / Share your thoughts in the comments section below