BART feud shows that censorship is never local

BY NICOLE WONG—Here’s the thing about censorship: in this globally connected world, censorship is never local.

So, whether you live in the SF Bay Area or not, whether you ride the BART rail system or not, the recent actions of local government officials affected us all.

Last Thursday, during the evening rush hour commute, BART shut down cell antennas in several of its San Francisco stations. According to BART’s official statement, silencing mobile devices was “one of many tactics” to prevent an on-site protest against the agency. BART officials claim that the protesters planned to “coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of the BART Police.” This supposedly justified the blackout of all cell phone activity within the BART stations.

But crowd control and communication control are two very different things, and it is dangerous for governments to confuse them. That is true for BART, as much as it is true for Hosni Mubarek in Egypt or David Cameron in the UK.

In the wake of a second BART demonstration yesterday, there is a great deal of debate about the balance between public safety and free expression. This debate is critically important. It is a fundamental piece of our democracy that distinguishes us from other more repressive places in the world.

And here is why what San Francisco and BART officials do next matters: the whole world is watching.

The “local” conversation about the police powers vested in BART, the applicability of the California Constitution or the primacy of the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly is only one part of the picture. Be sure that government officials in China, Vietnam, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also watching this debate. Every time a Western democratic power chooses the censorship switch, it validates the censorship in other countries where the First Amendment has no purchase.

In order for us, as a democratic society, to maintain the moral authority to condemn repressive censorship and encourage the repressed to speak out against their governments, we must guard against the eroding of our own principles. Even if it involves the actions of just one local transit authority.

This is not a call for the further criticism of BART. If we are honest with each other, no one is seeking a world in which the police are prevented from acting swiftly and responsibly to protect people — certainly not unmanaged crowds within falling distance of electrified rails.

This is a call for BART to lead in a way that serves its patrons and provides an example to every other government authority with the power to shut down a communication network. There must be a framework and decision process for deciding which tools to use in order to control a crowd. In this country, and particularly in San Francisco, the communication “kill switch” should be a tool of last resort.

copyright Nicole Wong 2011

Nicole Wong, a former member of FAC’s Board of Directors, was a lawyer for Google responsible for (among other things) responding to foreign governments’ demands for removal of content from Google services.

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