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Safety or censorship: BART abuses power

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Authorities stifled free speech and the right to peaceably assemble by cutting the power from cell phone services to avert digitally organized protests in response to two fatal shootings Aug. 12. However, this did not happen in Egypt, China or Libya, it happened right here in the United States.

Photo courtesy of theoaklandjournal.com.

The protests were aimed at the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. BART serves the San Francisco Bay and surrounding areas, and according to the American Public Transportation Association it is the fifth busiest heavy rail rapid transit system in the U.S.

BART has recently come under fire after transit officers fatally shot a man named Charles Hill, who was allegedly carrying a knife, July 3. In 2009, BART officers faced a similar situation after the shooting of an unarmed man named Oscar Grant III, in which BART officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Both peaceful and violent protests took place after the initial shooting in 2009, and BART officials feared the same response to the 2011 shooting of Hill after threats of a digitally organized protest appeared on a website.

BART shut down the electricity to several cell phone towers, which interrupted service for three hours, at four transit stations. Thousands in the Bay Area went without service and an unknown number of demonstrators were denied their right to peaceably assemble. No protest ever formed that day.

The backlash against the BART officials’ decision has been great. Many articles have made comparisons to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s tactics to block social networking sites to stop protests earlier this year.

Hacker groups, such as one called Anonymous, have launched both internet attacks and physical protests against BART since the communications shutdown. However, legal experts are claiming that BART was within its rights since it privately owns the communications infrastructure that was shutdown.

While BART may have been within its legal property rights, there is a real question here of whether this was a direct violation of the First Amendment. While some say this was an unprecedented move by a government agency, this type of censorship is reminiscent of many others throughout history and should not be tolerated.

Authoritative governments have always attempted to control the medium that communications are delivered through, whether through book burnings or government controlled propaganda radio stations, and being able to control the channels through which we communicate has always been an effective way of oppressing people.

In the U.S., the First Amendment gives people the right to peaceably assemble, and while authorities can take appropriate measures to ensure that demonstrations remain peaceable, stopping a protest simply because it has the potential to propose risk or illegal behavior is clearly a form of censorship.

While the Supreme Court has granted local authorities the right to limit demonstrations before, such as in cases of “clear and present danger” or “imminent incitement of lawlessness,” the Supreme Court has never before blocked the fundamental right to peaceably assemble simply because there was a possibility of danger. The reaction of BART officials was to give no alternative. In addition, thousands of uninvolved individuals’ rights were stripped because of the fruitless threats of a few.

At best, BART’s tactics were heavy-handed. At worst, it was an indication of the authoritative response governments have been taking against the power of digital communication and social networking. The government has typically used fear as a motivational tool to strip citizens of their rights, and with fear comes complacency and the willingness to accept and obey without question.

Every day, citizens across the globe are becoming increasingly dependent on digital technology to create, store and communicate information. It is vital that these services are protected just as strongly as any other form of communication.

Unfortunately, the government is sadly behind in developing legislation to address the many issues that technology has presented and if not addressed, incidents such as BART’s officials abusing power will continue. The people have the right to speak, even when that speech is in the form of a text message.