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BART's misguided actions

Rather than trample on 1st Amendment rights, the transit agency needs to get a better handle on crowd control.

August 17, 2011

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system has been the target of sporadic, aggressive protests since a transit police officer shot and killed an intoxicated homeless person on a train platform last month. The protests have been disruptive, delaying trains and making it harder for passengers to move through stations. But in the last week BART has gone too far to stop the protests, first shutting off cellphone service in downtown San Francisco stations to prevent activists from coordinating their movements, then closing those stations entirely during the evening commute. That's a stunningly misguided response.

One of this country's fundamental values is the right of the people to express their opposition to government. That's why we have the 1st Amendment, which bars the government from abridging the public's freedom to speak and to assemble peacefully. But that right coexists with other fundamental values, such as public safety. So there's a balance that the government and agencies such as BART have to strike.

Granted, that's easier said than done when the protests are vehement and emotional, as has been the case with the group No Justice No BART. Citing half a dozen fatal shootings by BART officers, the group has been staging rallies on BART platforms, calling for the agency to disband its police force. Its supporters have climbed on trains and held doors open, bringing lines to a halt when they're in greatest demand.

When BART officials learned that members of the group planned to slip into downtown stations last Thursday and conduct another protest on the platforms, they decided to shut down cellphone service for all passengers in the downtown tunnels during rush hour. That unusual step prompted a public outcry and an inquiry by the Federal Communications Commission. It also prompted the Anonymous hacker collective to get involved, leading to an even larger protest Monday afternoon — one against the cellphone cutoff as well as the shootings. Overwhelmed, BART shut down four of its stations for two hours, keeping protesters off the platforms but stranding hundreds of commuters.

We don't condone some of the tactics used by Anonymous — particularly the release of passengers' personal information siphoned from BART's website — and No Justice No BART. Nevertheless, the agency was wrong to try to preempt the latter's protest last week; that sort of prior restraint is antithetical to a free society. Rather than assuming the group's members would act improperly, BART should have prepared itself to respond in the event that they actually threatened the safe operation of the trains.

That's the strategy the agency appeared to adopt Monday, yet despite ample advance warning, it wasn't up to the task of keeping the stations open during the protests. Instead of inconveniencing many to stop the actions of an obstreperous few, BART needs to master the basics of crowd control, and do so soon.

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