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Cellphone service shutdown questioned

An illegal, Orwellian violation of free-speech rights? Or just a smart tactic to protect train passengers' safety from rowdy would-be demonstrators during a busy evening commute?

The question resonated Saturday in San Francisco and beyond as details emerged of Bay Area Rapid Transit officials' decision to cut off underground cellphone service for a few hours at some stations Thursday. Commuters at stations from downtown to the city's main airport were affected as BART officials sought to tactically thwart a planned protest over the recent fatal shooting of a 45-year-old man by transit police.

Two days later, the move had civil rights and legal experts questioning the agency, and drew backlash from one transit board member who was taken aback by the decision.

"I'm just shocked that they didn't think about the implications of this. We really don't have the right to be this type of censor," said Lynette Sweet, who serves on BART board.

But was it truly censorship? Channels of communication were cut off for everyone at a given station, not just those whose speech the transit authority was trying to impede. And beyond that, there are legal nuances to consider, including whether under the law BART is considered a government agency -- a key component in defining censorship.

BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow said that, for his agency, the issue boiled down simply to one of public safety.

"It wasn't a decision made lightly. This wasn't about free speech. It was about safety," Fairow told KTVU-TV on Friday.

University of Michigan law professor Len Niehoff, who specializes in First Amendment and media law issues, found the BART actions troublesome.

The government does have the right to break up a demonstration if it forms in an area where protests are prohibited and poses a risk to public safety, Niehoff said. But it should not prohibit free speech to prevent the possibility of a protest happening.

"The idea that we're going to keep people from talking about what they might or might not do, based on the idea that they might all agree to violate the law, is positively Orwellian," he said.

BART officials maintained the cellphone disruptions were legal.