On July 3, 2011, police involved with San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, shot and killed a homeless man. The police had been called in to respond to reports of a man drinking alcohol and wobbling on the platform and arrived to find 45 year old Charles Hill, who was also armed with a knife. In attempting to bring order to the situation, Hill allegedly threw the knife, and in the chaos of the incident, one of the two officers fired three shots into the homeless man, killing him. The officers were carrying tasers, which could have been used to subdue the victim, and the event prompted numerous protests of BART and the BART police.
Protestors had been using social media sites such as Facebook to help organize and plan group protests at San Francisco train stations, and when BART authorities learned that protestors were planning to use mobile devices to coordinate mass demonstration on local train platforms, they decided to take action by blocking cell phone reception at four of their stations by cutting power to the cellular towers for a period of three hours. The move is being compared to similar moves used to stop demonstrations in countries such as Egypt, and it is spurring interest from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union as to whether or not the response is appropriate.
There is certainly a great deal of debate, both in the media and in legal offices right now as to whether or not the tactics employed by BART were legal. BART officials seem to believe that their actions were in the name of public safety, while protestors and civil liberties groups believe that the move infringes upon free speech.
The FCC is currently investigating the situation, but criticism from First Amendment scholars has already begun. The move is certainly prompting great legal debate, and it may even have the benefit of helping to create a clearer legal line. When is free speech just free speech, and when does the Internet and social media present a danger to society? When is cutting off access to these services legal, and when is it an infringement upon the Bill of Rights. Right now, law books have surprisingly little foundation for a legal argument in either direction, but with so much media attention being given to this action, the location of the line in the sand may become much clearer.