The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) of San Francisco shut down underground cell phone communications for a few hours at various stations on Thursday night.
Their goal was to eliminate the ability of protestors to organize via cell phones. Various groups were planning protests against the fatal shooting of homeless man, who police say was drunk and holding a knife at the time of the shooting.
BART characterized their actions as preventing “a civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations” that could “lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators.”
Critics, however, characterized it as a clampdown on free speech and drew comparisons to brutal dictators like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Whether or not the BART cell phone shutdown was ethical in the context of American principles depends on two factors.
The first question is whether or not the protestors were actively trying to avoid police presence. The assembly of a large number of people to protest, while a fundamental American right, is a potential recipe for chaotic violence – if not handled properly.
As such, the government has the right to regulate and monitor such protests to ensure the peace and safety of all parties. The U.S. government has a good track record of granting the right of protesting (arguably except for the free speech zone restrictions), so there is little justification for not applying for a license and actively trying to avoid authorities.
The BART protestors, BART feared, wanted to do exactly that using their cell phones. Had they succeeded, chaos and violence could have ensued.
The American way to address grievance is through the courts and peaceful protests with police presence. To do otherwise would be illegal and ethical and authorities have the right to prosecute such actions.
However, the pre-emptive nature of the cell phone shutdown was troubling. Under the U.S. justice system, people are arrested in the act of a crime or after the fact.
Authorities do act on information that point to the future occurrence of a crime, but what they are allowed to do preemptively is limited.
Shutting down cell phone communication in a public space, even if the communication equipment was owned by BART, arguably crossed that line.