BART Board President: Cell Shutdown Justified (UPDATED)

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(San Francisco – KALW) BART board president Bob Franklin Monday morning defended the agency’s decision to disable cell service on several platforms last Thursday, to disrupt a planned protest that was to be organized in part, via mobile communications among the participants. Franklin said any inconvenience passengers might have experienced paled in comparison to the potential danger and chaos of a large protest.

“As a board member I cannot tolerate a protest on the platform,” he said. “In downtown San Francisco at the peak of the evening, there’s way too many people, trains coming in at 80 m.p.h., a thousand volts of electricity nearby, it’s just dangerous.”

A protest Monday night closed four BART stations and did not appear to involve any violence, property destruction or clashes with police as reported to KALW live in this report.

On July 11, a month before last Thursday's cell shutdown, demonstrators upset about the BART Police killing of a homeless man named Charles Hill filled downtown stations, crowding platforms and at one point attempting to climb on top of a stopped train. “No one was killed,” said Franklin of that demonstration. "And someone could have easily been killed.”

Franklin seemed unclear on exactly who had made the decision to shut down phone and wireless service, saying that it was either the police chief or the agency's general manager. But the fallout from that decision, he said, is now out of BART’s hands.

“This is untested in the U.S.,” he said. “It happened, and now the country weighs in. It's no longer a BART policy issue.”

In addition to First Amendment issues, the intentional disruption of cell service raised questions about the legality of shutting down an entire communications network, even if only temporarily. In a statement, FCC spokesman Neil Grace said the agency was monitoring the situation.

“We are continuing to collect information about BART's actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."

BART was the victim of a cyberattack by hackers group Anonymous over the weekend, which the group said it staged in retaliation for the cell phone shutdown. The data breach compromised the personal information of more than 2,000 BART customers. On a conference call with reporters, BART Chief Communications Officer Linton Johnson repeatedly characterized BART as the victim and said the agency's priority was the safety of paid patrons. The right to free assembly, he said, did not extend to within BART's fare gates.

"Passengers have a Constitutional right to safety," he said. "People are forgetting the fact that there are multiple Constitutional rights, and we have to protect all of them."

Johnson described the decision to cut off phone service as "gut-wrenching," and added that BART felt "every life is precious." He declined to specify what measures the agency was taking to protect its customers personal data in the wake of the cyberattack, but did say that it had reached out to the FBI.

Another protest is planned for 5 p.m. PT tonight at the Civic Center station in downtown San Francisco, and Johnson would not rule out the possibility of again disrupting cell service. Board president Franklin, however, said he didn't think such a move would be prudent, as the location for the protest was already set. "I don't think the tactic will be as effective as it was last Thursday," he said.

To hear a candid interview with Lynette Sweet another BART board member, head over to The Takeaway, where she criticizes the cell shutdown decision in no uncertain terms.