BART’s decision to shut down cell service to thwart a protest has critics charging First Amendment violations. The hacker group known as Anonymous retaliated against BART by breaking into the transit agency’s website and posting information about customers. Are BART’s actions justified in order to protect passengers? Is hacking a reasonable way to protest? Are there parallels to the crackdowns in Egypt and Syria?

Joseph Menn, San Francisco-based reporter for the Financial Times and author of the new book "Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet"
Lynette Sweet, BART director, District 7
Michael T. Risher, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California
Dan Goodrich, research associate at the Norman Y. Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University
Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA

  • erictremont

    There are 2 critical facts about this issue that must be recognized.  Fact # 1: the people who were organizing last week’s demonstration were clearly not planning a peaceful, orderly protest.  Instead, they wanted to foment chaos on a large scale, which posed a clear and present danger to BART passengers.  Fact # 2: Federal courts have consistently ruled that governmental authorities have the right to take reasonable measures to maintain order and protect the public by requiring large groups of people who want to stage political demonstrations to obtain permits, assemble within certain physical boundaries, and so forth.  Given these 2 facts, BART management had the legal right and a moral obligation to take preventive measures to protect the public, even if it meant temporarily curtailing the demonstrators’ freedom of speech. Finally, I find it hard to believe that any Bay Area politician would raise objections to BART’s actions if the target of the planned protest was more sympathetic than the BART police.  For example, if a crazed mob of homophobic, anti-gay marriage protesters were planning to disrupt the annual San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, does anyone doubt that the city’s political elites would demand that the city take whatever preventive measures are necessary to protect parade participants and spectators?  As a Supreme Court justice once observed, “The U.S. Constitution is not a suicide pact.” 

    • soberrider

      Thank you for your comments.  Much of the talk seems to be about the rights of the protesters.  How about the rights of us BART riders who need to be able to get to and from work?  I’m fine with protests, but there is no reason to disrupt service to get a point across and the safety of passengers should trump the luxury of cell phone service.

      • Sam

        Disruptive protest is necessary when the State thinks it has the right to deploy cops who gun people down.

        • Kenbale2000

          That made no sense.  The state does have a right to deploy armed police.  The problem obviously is to better train them in non-lethal methods for arresting someone.  Take your protest to BART headquarters, don”t violate the rights of thousands of commuters.    

      • erictremont

        Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you 100%.


    • Chrisco

      Yes, it was the Declaration onf Independence that was a suicide pact: “And for the
      support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine
      Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our
      sacred Honor”

      By the time of 1789, they did not need to put that suicide pact in the Constitution.

      Linton Johnson is a judicial activist – he just gave us the Constitutional Right To Safety. Where does that come from? Does it trump other rights, such as the right against self-incrimination, or the right to an attorney, or even the right of free speech? Giving all these rights to alleged criminals and enemies of the state but nothing on the rights of victims. Oh those crazy founding fathers.

      • erictremont

        If you want to conduct non–violent civil disobedience (an honorable tradition) to protest the actions of BART police, that is fine with me. But nobody has the right to put innocent BART patrons in danger under the guise of a political protest. Here’s an analogy that may appeal to you: the U.S. had a right to strike back at Al Queda after 9/11, but that did not give it the right to bomb Iraq which had nothing to do with 9/11. If you want people to be sympathetic to your cause, don’t act like thugs.

        • Chrisco

          I am only commenting on the notion that the US Constitution is not a suicide pact and I observed that the Declaration of Indepence, which founded the country, IS a suicide pact. And moreover, the Constitution can be viewed as harmful in certain instances. It gives many rights to alleged criminals. It hinders the police in their investigations of crime. It does a lot of things that you could argue in a specific instance are harmful to the community. For instance, letting OJ Simpson go free.

          The Constitution is not about safety. It is about the structure of government and the rights of citizens. Pure safety is for totalitarian, oppressive societies – unfortunately a direction we are moving.

          • erictremont

            There is sometimes a tradeoff between public safety and free speech. I am not arguing for always emphasizing safety and ignoring free speech. If the people who are enraged by the recent BART police shooting had been willing to stage a peaceful protest, nobody would raise any objections. But intentionally disrupting BART trains and endangering the lives of innocent people is unacceptable.

  • BART really shot themselves in the foot with this move.  If I am a tourist planning on visiting San Francisco or I am a commuter, the next time I hear or read on social media that a protest is planned against BART, I’m simply going to avoid taking BART for fear that while I’m on BART I won’t be able to use my phone. 

    Now all protesters have to do is ANNOUNCE a plan protest and ridership on BART by regular tourists and commuters is going to drop for fear that mobile service will be disrupted on the protest day.  The protesters don’t even have to show up in order to have a negative affect on BART.

    • Rusty

      I don’t follow that logic. You’d avoid taking the train for fear you wouldn’t be able to use your phone? What about not taking the train for fear the protestors might shut down the trains?

  • I agree with erictremont that BART acted well within its mandate to maintain public order on the system.  BART, after all, is NOT a phone company; it runs TRAINS.  It has no legal requirement to provide cell phone service on the trains, and until relatively recently it didn’t do so.  Cell phone service on trains is a convenience, not a “right.”  If I understand correctly, all you had to do to get cell service during the “shutdown” was to LEAVE the train system, since all BART shut down was its own routers.  There is a great deal of overreaction going on here; and I support the first amendment as much as anyone.

  • Mtn -Pines

    I agree with what BART did and they should be able to do this, especially since it’s private property.

    • BART is not private property. it is a public service.

  • Sam

    I think if BART administration sees itself as having the right to disrupt the lives of its riders by murdering them, then protesters have a right to disrupt BART trains until their policies become more humane. Disruptive protest is a necessary evil in a society where police are given the right to kill people who do not pose a lethal threat.

  • Raymond

    I think that the speaker made an important point: cell phone access on BART is a privilege extended to passengers. As a frequent passenger I wish it would be rescinded – I am tired of over hearing loud, mundane conversations every morning and evening. In terms of politics, Anonymous is a synonym for Idiot. They disrupted my commute. They violated my privacy by hacking the website. They alienated many of us who are actually supported them in the past.

    • Sam

      You complain about your commute but what about the people killed by BART cops? The lives of people who were killed are more important than your commute, and it is those killings which people were protesting.

  • Tania Levy

    Wrong focus – Bart needs to train its police to use NON LETHAL force when they encounter a problem.   Until they stop killing people for minor threats there will be protests, and justifiably so.  

    Shutting down cell phones is not a legitimate response to a peaceful protest.  Allow the speech and prevent the violence. 

    • Chemist151

      They’re definitely killing too many people.  Have they ever really needed guns?  Perhaps we should take their guns away and if they need real guns, call better trained police.

    • Kenbale2000

      Sorry, the protest was not peaceful.  It blocked access to public transportation for thousands of people who have nothing to do with the issues with BART police of administration.  Take the protest to BART headquarters.  Also, there is no first amendment right to mandate that BART provide extra access for cell phone service.  Read your constitution and first amendment case law.

  • Anders

    I want my BART experience to be calm and rerliable. I feel the short interuption in cell implementation to preserve order is appropriate.

  • Joe

    BART would have been smart to just blame it on an electrical problem or not even address the issue.  Why bring your organization into the spotlight against people trying to demonstrate?  Even if you’re in the right, you’re going to look terrible.

    Hindsight is 20/20 I suppose.

  • Jmfm

    What about the safety of riders who may wish to avoid a problem and BART cuts off all phone service depriving them of a safety tool???

  • Chemist151

    I think it’s good that they posted peoples names and passwords.  It exposes BART. No database should store un-encrypted passwords. 

    The password should be encrypted on the user end and then transferred to the database.  The fact that it’s not, the user is passing their password unencrypted over the internet to the BART site.  Any packet sniffer could pick that up.  No one on the database end should ever see an unencrypted password.  Did they hire someone still in high school to program their database?

    The users should be thankful that they found out before harm was done by poor programming practices.  They need to hire a real programmer.  Thank you Anonymous for protecting the users of their website.

    • Some hacker will get at almost any internet-linked database.  The primary solution lies in smart limiting of private personal information.  Just don’t post data that you don’t want to go public, or learn how to pick your spots.  Some sites will be more likely targets for hackers, some will be better protected than others.  On the internet, today is the first day of the rest of your internet presence.  Reside accordingly, safely.

      • Chemist151

        They get in because of bad prgramming and taking short cuts.  If the person designing the bart database did not bother to encrypt the passwords, they did not bother to protect against the most basic attack. 

        The fact that they did not bother to encrypt passwords is a sign of that.  It’s the most basic step.  The yahoo saying that they’re sure that they had better protection systems on other sites shows his ignorance of how a database attack works like McAffee will stop it.  LOL.

        I’m now concerned about all the credit cards with the transit people.  Because they’re not encrypting passwords, why would they bother to encrypt your credit card number.  Now I can explain to the people that have their credit card info stolen how it happened.  

        How about fastrak?  Did they use the same programmer?

        There is no firewall or scanner that will stop a database attack against the worst kind of programming.

        There is no excuse for this level of insecurity on a dot-gov site. 


        It shows the level of apathy of the governent employee and why they don’t deserve they sweet pensions that they get.

  • Joe

    Anonymous’ “hacking” of big name websites isn’t about enforcing free speech, it’s about demonstration of power and an exposure of ignorance.  

  • colin

    Can the guest clarify how shutting down cellphone service inhibited the protesters ability to effectively protest?  Did BART stop them from holding signs, handing out fliers, yelling slogans, etc?  

  • forumsucks

    wow. this conversation is wack. Scott Shaffer is a sham journalist.  fear-mongering about cell-phone bomb wielding terrorist/anarchist and authoritarian/terrorist internet spooks, while down playing the implication of govenrmental/private interference in public protest against the ongoing murderous actions of the Bart cops.  So bart cops can kill people but non-violent protestors (anarchist and Anonymous) are the real threat.   get real!  the bart cops kill people on a pretty regular basis and then take unprecedented steps to shut down public opposition but we need to be afraid of non-existent threats and mischaracterization of public opposition – FASCIST. but what more should we expect from National Propaganda Radio. 

  • T Shrew

    First, BART didn’t “shut down cell phones”, all they did was turn off the signal repeaters inside their tunnels returning the tunnels to the same state they were in the past before the repeaters were installed. Anyone who wanted to use their cell phone just needed to leave the tunnels and ‘like magic’ their cell service (available signal) would have been restored by not being underground away from any cellular reception. Yes, someone on a train wouldn’t have the luxury of going above ground until the train would stop at a station and that individual would get off it and go above. It did not curtail freedom of speech, it just did not facilitate cellular signal availability in the tunnels.

    Was BART right in shutting off the repeaters? The repeaters are private property, not public. No one has a “right” to cellular signal (or else people living in rural areas would be able to sue the carriers on those grounds). BART doesn’t -need- to run the repeaters, they’re there for the convenience of the patrons. In this case the well-being and convenience of the patrons was going to be threatened by the availability of the repeaters.

    Does an incident with a BART police person doing something wrong justify ANY group organizing a disruptive and potentially harmful (to patrons, not to BART) protest? no. There are other means to protest and complain other than causing harm to those who are 100% uninvolved. The fact “protesters” felt justified to harm patrons by hacking the website and posting personal information when they felt they were not given free reign to do so last week further characterizes them as nothing more than thugs.

  • Lc Bob

    With all the focus aimed at BART and the 1st Amendment issues, it looks as if an even more important issue is being totally ignored. I have to ask why there are not vocal protests against a system that put the homeless man on the street instead of getting the help he needed so as not to be in this situation in the first place. It is sad people spew against BART but are totally silent on the plight of the homeless and those in need of mental help. Ronald Reagan as governor of California in the late 60 and early 70 threw many in need of help onto the streets and those on the right take that callous attitude to new highs every day. Had that homeless person had proper care none of this would have happened. Wake up people.

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