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Aug. 17, 2011

BART!

by Sam Flatow

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If you hadn’t already heard, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut down underground mobile service for 3 hours to successfully stop a protest. But first, a disclaimer: this article is about the protest, not the issue protested.

1. The reason for the demonstration does not matter. The 1st amendment protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Therefore, the topic of dispute is to be ignored and replaced with an attempt to change the Official Pie of America from apple to cherry.

2. The validity of the claims are also irrelevant, so whether cherry is actually more American than apple makes no difference.

But before we tackle the BIG question, let’s start with the small ones – and there are several.

There has been talk about the Communications Act of 1934 and its relevance to this case, but the only section in question involves the use of a device to jam or interrupt radio signals. There was no such jamming device (raspberry or otherwise); the service itself was shut down. Now, one could argue that the phrase “willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station” could mean deactivation, but it’s in a section titled “Blocking and Jamming”, sandwiched between two lines specifically involving toast – I mean radio signals.

Next, was it really a slip towards totalitarian control, or just a poor decision? The truth is, a subway platform has many lethal hazards: the third rail, thousands of tons of steel speeding through narrow tunnels, pamphleteers – it’s a scary place. During the first fruit-filling protest in the underground, things got a little dangerous. There was a shoving match with police next to and inside of the train, and one guy climbed on top of a subway car.

So, if BART was trying to avoid injury and overstepped their limits, why the deception? BART originally claimed to have “asked wireless providers to temporarily interrupt service”, but this comment was later “updated” to the current statement that BART made the interruption independently and informed the wireless providers of their actions. Personally, I try to never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, and I think that the ACLU agrees when it declared that it would not sue BART after underground mobile phone service continued through the follow up August 15th pie demonstration even though BART made no promise to avoid repeating this incident.

Again, these are small potatoes: BART’s been exposed, people are outraged, and there’s an FCC investigation.

So here’s the big question: Should the government shut down mobile services to stop a riot? Not a few people crowding up a platform, I’m talking about England, with over 100 counts of life-threatening arson , $325 million dollars worth of damage, and 5 deaths. Should the government have the right to cut communications to save lives and property, or is free speech an exercise in making omelets?

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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