California Governor’s Veto Lets State Agencies Disrupt Protesters’ Cell Phone Communications

Saturday, October 6, 2012
By Paul Martin
October 6, 2012

Six months after Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials disrupted a protest rally over police brutality by shutting down wireless service in the subway, the California legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 1160, requiring a court order before such actions can be taken.

But on September 29, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, echoing warnings from law enforcement that it would interfere with “barricade, hostage and emergency circumstances.” He applauded the legislation’s attempt to limit interruption of wireless service to only “the most extreme circumstances,” but said the bill was too restrictive.

BART’s unprecedented disruption of service in August 2011 occurred when protesters began to gather for a rally days after a BART police officer fatally shot a knife-wielding homeless man at the San Francisco Civic Center station. The transit agency enlisted the telecoms to kill cell phone connections underground.

BART was able to cut off service because of agreements it has with wireless carriers who operate a highly controlled network that can be turned off with practically a flip of a switch.

The ACLU said the “decision was in effect an effort by a governmental entity to silence its critics. . . . BART’s actions must be seen in the context of today’s events. All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to silence them.”

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