For what seems to be the first time in the United States, a government agency cut off mobile-internet and phone service to quash a protest demonstration. Was this a valid and reasonable way to protect public safety or an unlawful infringement on free speech rights protected under the First Amendment?
When it learned of a planned protest in its stations, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authorities made the decision to shut off power to the agency’s wireless networks. The BART board president told the SF Chronicle that its tactic is legal and necessary to ensure commuter safety.
Of course, the protestors and First Amendment advocates see things very differently and compare BART’s action to that exercised by Middle Eastern tyrannies to quell dissent. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) calls BART’s action
a prior restraint on the free speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protester or a commuter.
In thinking about whether this action was an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, we need to remember that governments and public agencies are allowed to restrict demonstrations to designated free speech zones. The government can impose reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions when expressive conduct occurs on public grounds as long as such restrictions are
- content neutral,
- narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and
- leave open ample alternatives for communication.
By cutting off cell service for everyone in only the BART stations where demonstrations were planned, and providing officers and landlines for emergencies, BART’s action arguably fits into these constitutional requirements.
What do you think? Were BART’s actions constitutional? Even if constitutional, is this something you see as a useful tool for government entities, or a possible abuse of power?
For more on governmental entities ability to regulate personal conduct, and specifically on issues of regulating free speech, turn to The California Municipal Law Handbook, chap 9.
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