Is it ever OK for the government to silence the public's electronic communications?
The Federal Communications Commission is looking into that question, after a protest in San Francisco turned into a debate over free speech rights -- and over limiting those rights for the public good.
On Aug. 11, Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, learned that demonstrators were massing on a train platform and would get further instructions via text message.
In an unprecedented move, BART officials shut off cellphone service underground, thwarting the planned protest and sparking a firestorm of controversy around the First Amendment. Some even compared BART to regimes that try to quell social unrest by silencing electronic communications.
After weeks of debate, BART became the first transit agency in the country to adopt specific guidelines for jamming cellphone service.
"Our cellphone policy is set up for life safety and law enforcement purposes only. That's the only time we'll end up shutting down the cell service," BART Board President John McPartland said.
The agency says such scenarios might include the report of a bomb that could be detonated by a cellphone, a hostage situation or the threat of a train being stopped or damaged. Under this policy, cellphone service would not have been turned off last August.more