After ordering phones censored, BART spokesperson took vacation during protest

This design by artist Jon-Paul Bail is part of a wave of creative protest confronting the agency over police shootings.

On August 16, one day after a transit system disruption caused by protests over BART's unprecedented decision to temporary cut cellular phone during a previous protest, BART Chief Communications Officer Linton Johnson acknowledged to the press that the idea to cut service had been his from the start.

Johnson defended his decision telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “A 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in the Brandenburg v. Ohio case, allows public agencies to put public safety before free speech when there is an imminent danger to the public.”

But was there an imminent danger?

What Johnson failed to acknowledge was that after his idea to order a unprecedented disruption of cellular service to thwart the protest anticipated on August 11 was vetted by BART police, Johnson went on vacation and wasn't around to help determine what kind of danger the protest – which didn't end of happening – may have posed. NOTE THE UPDATE BELOW. JOHNSON CLAIMS HE WAS MONITORING THE STATIONS.

In fact, Johnson left on vacation on August 11, the same day the fizzled protest that started a national controversy occurred. So with BART's plan in motion, and Johnson apparently not on hand, nothing of note happened. No indication was reported by BART or by the media of any trouble at all breaking out on the platforms or paid areas of BART stations on August 11. BART may have been left holding the bag.

An automatically generated e-mail response to the Guardian's request to interview Johnson read “I will be out of the office starting 08/11/2011 and will not return until 08/16/2011. Please contact Deputy Chief Communications Officer Jim Allison while I am gone.”

On August 15, Johnson's voicemail message indicated he had returned from vacation early, and would do his best to field phone interview requests within 20 minutes of receiving them.

August 15 happened to be the day that fallout from his plan lead to evening rush hour transit disruptions by protesters with swarms of national and international news representatives on hand. Though interviewed by the nation's press corp, Johnson chose not to acknowledge the primacy of his decision making role in the censorship until the following day.

Comparing the “imminent danger,” declared by BART, and the #opBART protest called by international hacker group Anonymous on August 15 that caused all Downtown San Francisco BART stations to close for the evening rush, questions arise over what, if any, criteria Johnson used in deciding to pull or not pull the plug on BART cell service.

The Federal Communications Commissions has launched an investigation into BART's actions, responding to a call by California State Senator Leland Yee.

“We are continuing to collect information about BART's actions,” stated FCC spokesperson Neil Grace in a statement issued by the agency. “(We) will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."

UPDATE: Johnson finally got back to us by email and wrote, "I offered up the idea on Thursday morning.  BART PD took it to the Interim GM.  The GM approved it then let the Board of Directors know what was to happen that night.  I was  on scene in case the protest broke out.   I left downtown SF around 8pm - I was on a plane that night, which left at 11:50pm."



1) Was the BART police aware of Linton's unilateral move to shutdown cell servce? Did they know that no one would have been able to call for help, if needed? How did that endanger the public?

2) What parameters authorize this action? Could BART use this to stifle bad press when their computers malfunction? If there are no parameters to guide staff's actions, how can we know?

3) Can 'expressive action' -- which is rightly prohibited in specific public areas, be stretched to include silent communication on a digital device, wouldn't the 'manner' aspect of these decisions (time/place/manner) exclude silent communication?

Posted by triple0 on Aug. 17, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

that the vast majority of public entities and agencies do not provide cell phone coverage either. So why criticize one of the very few that usually do?

Now of course, we're only talking about underground area's here. If you're on overground BART, Muni or CalTrain transit, then you'll get cell phone service in the same way as you do (or do not) everywhere else.

But where a public area has is underground, and so regular cell phone service isn't available, are they under ANY obligation to provide that? I'd say no, any more than they need to provide payphones, newspaper stands or megaphones.

In an emergency, there are special phones on platforms that can direct you immediately to BART police and/or medical help.

BART don't provide cell phone service in order to enable free speech on the platforms. That's a red herring. Nor is it an emergency measure. It's simply a free "extra" to make traveling potentially more pleasant or productive. BART can take it away at any time for any reason, no reason or even a bad reason. It's a non-issue.

And of course Muni doesn't provide coverage either. Are they suppressing your free speech, because you can't use cell phones in the tunnels? That's hogwash.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 18, 2011 @ 7:26 am

"The Federal Communications Commission confirmed Monday that it was investigating BART's right to cut off cellular service. "

Posted by Guest on Aug. 18, 2011 @ 9:33 am

The cell service supplied by BART is not a service at all, it is nothing but antennae pass through allowing existing cell service from above ground to interact below ground.

Let me put his another way, if they have no responsibility to provide this service then they should immediately sell the pass through network connections to the private cell providers who obviously respect their customers communications rights much more than the public entity BART

What BART has done is wholly and unequivocally wrong, the intent to interrupt communications as a punitive tactic against the demonstrators is the kind of behavior we see from dictators. BART must be its own fully sovereign dictatorship to think it can trample human rights in this way. Whats next water cannons and tasers ?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2011 @ 6:56 am

complaint regardless of it having any intrinsic merit.

But since BART isn't in the business of providing free phone service, and since no calls were jammed (which technically would have been illegal) then I'd be stunned if the allegation is upheld.

Even without the risk of civil disorder as in this case, BART's provision of cell phone service is conditional and discretionary. It's not what you are paying for.

Posted by PaulT on Aug. 18, 2011 @ 10:20 am

This is a case of a government agency shutting down a means of communication for American citizens, on property those citizens pay for with their taxes, in an effort to prevent a crime that *might* happen in the future.

If it was legal, why didn't they repeat the shutdown of cell service again on Monday?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 18, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

guarantee any "means of communication". It protects and guarantees the ability to speak free from government interference. The BART protestors were able to speak freely at all times in the normal sense of those words.

The 1st Amendment does not guarantee that you will have a postal service, pony express, carrier pidgeons, semaphore signals, smoke signals, telegraph services, landlines, wireless internet or cell phone service.

You're confusing the speech itself with various methods of projecting it. Only the former is protected.

Posted by PaulT on Aug. 18, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

Also from this author

  • Compromise measures

    Housing and business tax propositions don't solve the city's problems, but both sides say they're the best we can expect

  • Suspended state

    Californians lose extended unemployment benefits as recession lingers

  • Sonic attack on the poor

    Concert promoter blasts industrial noise at illegal levels to drive away homeless people