After wireless signals were blocked by authorities of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, First Amendment advocates were up in arms. Dozens of angry demonstrators disrupted service at four subway stations. The nation debated whether BART’s action could be compared to the actions of autocratic regimes.
The brilliant idea to block signals, it turns out, came from BART’s chief spokesman, who is in a position designed to put a company’s best face forward.
Linton Johnson told reporters that he had made the “gut-wrenching” decision after receiving intelligence that a “mob” would be using Twitter and mobile phones to organize a protest on subway platforms.
The protest had been planned over the July 3 shooting death of Charles Blair Hill by BART police. Police say Hill came at them with a knife.
“[The idea] came to me in the middle of the morning,” Johnson said. “I sent it to the police department and they said they liked it.”
BART’s lawyers and police department approved the idea despite there being no precedent for it — this service shutdown marks the first time a government agency in the United States had ever blocked telecommunications service to try to head off a protest.
“This was the appropriate tool to ensure our customers’ safety and ensure their First Amendment rights to the best we could under these difficult times,” Johnson said.
Cellphone service is now available as protests have subsided.
Watch Johnson defend his decision to the media: