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BART Touches Third Rail in Cell-Phone Shutdown

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) stepped into a touchy First Amendment issue when it shut off cell-phone service this summer in response to protests over a police action.

The decision sparked protests from First Amendment advocates and even criticism from BART board members who thought the agency overreacted to protesters.

BART argues that it has no obligation to provide cell-phone service at all in its underground tube and tunnels. But the protesters argued, with some justification, that once BART provides cell-phone access it shouldn’t cut it off to prevent protesters and riders from communicating and peacefully assembling.

Some even likened BART’s actions to those of deposted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who tried to cut off cell-phone and Internet access to prevent swelling protests in Cairo which eventually brought down his regime.

That comparison may same somewhat over the top, but it does seem that there are better ways to prevent protests from getting out of hand than to prevent peaceful BART riders from communicating with each other and their loved ones. The BART board is in the process of setting a policy on cell-phone use — and one hopes the policy will be sensitive to First Amendment rights.

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