CA: FCC Will Review BART Cell Phone Service Disruption

As BART prepared for protests and potential service disruptions Monday, the Federal Communications Commission said it would review the transit agency's decision last week to cut off cell phone service at four underground stations in San Francisco to thwart a planned demonstration.

"Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," FCC spokesman Neil Grace wrote in an e-mail Monday. "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."

Grace says the FCC already has been in touch with BART administrators and plans to reach out to passengers, free speech advocates and other interested parties.

BART officials have said they acted legally Thursday. BART did not jam cell phone signals, but instead turned off equipment that allowed calls be transmitted to and from cell phone users in four underground stations.

On Monday, BART cautioned riders to be prepared to make alternative travel arrangements in case the transit system closes some of its stations temporarily during protests. Passengers should check for transit news at www.511.org or at the BART website, bart.gov .

The group Anonymous has posted a web notice urging the public to join a "peaceful protest" at 5 p.m. at the Civic Center BART station.

The group is protesting the July 3 shooting death of Charles Hill, a homeless man, by BART police at the Civic Center station, and the cell phone blackout.

Critics say BART is practicing censorship similar to that in countries ruled by dictators. BART officials defended the move as justified to keep trains running and prevent pushing, shoving or other actions that could endanger passengers on crowded station platforms next to moving trains.

BART officials said they do not object to protests outside station fare gates, but they vowed to take action to deal with protests inside the fare gates because of the risk to public safety.

"It's our obligation to provide safe transport to our customers," spokesman Linton Johnson said Monday in an interview televised on CNN.

Johnson said BART may cut off underground cell phone service again if it will help protect riders' "constitutional right to safety."

One constitutional law expert said the government has some latitude to control speech on certain kinds of public property.

"It may well be that the paid areas of BART stations are more like a library than they are like a park, so that the government has a pretty free hand," said Vikram Amar, associate dean at UC Davis' law school. "But the government still has to avoid basing its decisions on the particular viewpoints of particular speakers; the government's regulations still have to be reasonable; and it has to be spelled out so people have notice and there's not too much subjectivity or discretion."

That is, BART shouldn't be shutting down cellphone service because it disagrees with the message of a particular protest, Amar said, but it's probably within its rights to ensure that no protest -- whatever the content -- disrupts its ability to serve its riders.

"We're always a little bit more scared of government action when it's not done pursuant to some transparent, across-the-board, generally applicable policy," Amar said. "A lot depends on how much we think their policy was targeted toward these particular persons."

Meanwhile, the BART employee union for train operators called Monday for the state Public Utilities Commission to conduct a safety investigation of BART in the wake of a two-hour service shutdown that stranded thousands of riders on Aug. 8.

BART officials have blamed the shutdown on a communication problem between two routers designed to prevent a computer crash.

"The people who run BART have lost our confidence and are putting rider and employee safety at risk," said Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555. "We need a thorough investigation by an outside, independent regulatory agency to find answers."

Staff writer Josh Richman contributed to this report. Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff . Read the Capricious Commuter at www.ibabuzz.com/transportation/ .

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