This post was written more than four years ago. The world changes fast, and the information, conclusions, or attributions may or may not still be accurate. Check the sources and links, and email me if you have any questions.

As officials learned about protests being planned in response to Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police shooting and killing a homeless man with an intellectual disability, they shut down cell service to four transit stations in downtown San Francisco to prevent protesters from communicating with each other.

As the public and media attempt to gain clarity surrounding the shooting, BART’s media official seems to be stonewalling.  As the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Bruce Brugmann writes:

“BART (Police) is investigating and so is the San Francisco Police Department, but neither agency has released a single police report or any further information. BART is still withholding a security video from the station that shows part of the incident. All that either police department will say at this point is that the investigation is under way — but nobody will offer any time frame for its completion. For an agency still reeling from the last police shooting and still trying to win some kind of public confidence in its ability to run a law-enforcement operation, this kind of stonewalling is a big mistake.”
Editorial: End the BART coverup

But beyond the lack of transparency, BART’s actions mark the first time a government agency in the United States has shutdown public communications systems when faced with a protest – notably, just months after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak received negative attention from around the world for shutting down cellular and internet systems during a protest calling for his resignation.

BART issued a press release stating, “BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” Likely realizing that disabling cell phone service actually decreases safety in the event of an emergency, BART quickly proclaimed that train intercoms and courtesy telephones were still available.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes:

“Cell phone service has not always been available in BART stations. The advent of reliable service inside of stations is relatively recent. But once BART made the service available, cutting it off in order to prevent the organization of a protest constitutes a prior restraint on the free speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protester or a commuter. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.”
EFF: ‘BART Pulls a Mumbarak in San Francisco

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and other organizations came together for an emergency petition for a declaratory ruling that the discussion of telecommunications services violates federal law.