Under what circumstances is it permissible for a government agency in the U.S. to jam cell phone service?

I missed this story about Bay Area Rapid Transit shutting down cellphone service last week. The Christian Science Monitor gives the details:

The decision by BART to briefly cut cellphone service at four stations last Thursday drew widespread criticism by free speech advocates, a promised lawsuit by the ACLU, and a hack of a BART website by the online activist collective Anonymous, which posted personal information of thousands of BART website users on a separate website this weekend in retaliation.

After meeting with BART officials Monday, the ACLU said it won’t file a lawsuit over last week’s service disruption. The transit agency took that step out of concern that the planned protest would become violent, as did an earlier protest, on July 11, held to condemn the shooting of a homeless man by BART police. The civil liberties group said, however, it is disappointed that BART left the door open to future cell service disruptions. The Federal Communications Commission has opened an investigation into whether BART broke federal law by turning off four agency-owned cellphone transponders last Thursday.

Officials said they “debated to death” the issue of whether to cut cell service Monday night. Spokesman Linton Johnson maintained Monday that cutting service was again an option to protect rider safety. But as the time of the protests drew closer, the transit agency decided against it, mainly because of the public backlash.

“It’s dangerous for activists to amass in a train boarding platform,” BART board member Tom Radulovich told the San Francisco Examiner. “But to shut down cellphone service was a bit of an overreaction, and it has energized a whole new group of people to target BART.”

The debate at BART dovetails into a global debate about the role of social media in fomenting social unrest in places like Tehran, Cairo, and London. The US, too, is witnessing a growing number of “flash mobs” organized via social media, all of which criminologist Sean Varano at Roger Williams University says is starting to “break down our conventional understandings of crime.”

In general, it seems to me that only in the rarest of dire situations would an organ of government in the United States be justified in blocking or jamming use of cellphones or social media. And I can’t see how advance concerns that a protest might get out of hand could ever be a sufficient showing. That might be a good reason to shut down some train stations or call in more law enforcement. But forcibly gag Americans who wish to communicate? Almost never.

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About Guy N. Texas

Guy N. Texas is the pen name of a lawyer living in Dallas, who is now a liberal. He was once conservative, but this word has so morphed in meaning that he can no longer call himself that in good conscience. Guy has no political aspirations. He speaks only for himself.
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