BART Cell Phone Policy Raising Concerns about Freedom

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Last updated May 2, 2019

As cell phones become ever more widespread and ubiquitous, more and more government agencies and public entities are developing policies regarding their use.  Oakland, California is a case in point.  There, the public transportation system BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, is considering adopting new rules regarding the use of cell phones on train platforms.  The rules would include a provision for police to shut down all wireless communications capacity in such locations.

Police authority to do so would be limited to only the case of ‘extraordinary threats’, but some civil libertarians are concerned about the move regardless.  Who will determine what constitutes an extraordinary threat, and who will be able to overrule the decision on the matter? Such questions have yet to be fully answered to the public’s satisfaction, though they may come up for discussion next Thursday when the Board of Directors for BART officially votes to approve the policy in a public meeting.

BART has already taken steps, even without a policy in place, to eliminate wireless communications, including both voice and data services, in subway stations in San Francisco.  The goal of the cutoff in that case was to prevent a protest that was planned in order to express outrage over a police shooting.  While preventing a riot may be a worthy goal, it would seem to some that such a decision violated important First Amendment protections, notably freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

BART management claimed the shutdown was needed to keep train services from being compromised.