Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blocking Communications In a Riot

A few days ago we saw the city of San Francisco take a decisively controversial action in response to a planned demonstration over a police shooting. It was not exactly on the level of a "Dirty Harry" Callaghan move, but it had a powerful effect. Demonstrators and others found that Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials had shut off power to cell phone towers that serviced the metropolitan area trains. Some of the demonstrations planned to disrupt public transit service.

San Francisco, predictably, took a lot of criticism over the move. Even some BART board members found the action too draconian, as you can see in this Huffington Post article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/13/san-francisco-transit-cellphone-protest_n_926135.html

Officials, however, denied that this was a First Amendment issue and were confident that courts would back their action.

I am not sure how I feel about this. Predictably, the liberal Huffington Post discusses this event as if it took place in a vacuum, unconnected to global events. San Francisco officials most certainly had the recent riots in London and other English cities in mind when they pulled the plug on cell phone towers. Those were sparked by police shootings of gangsters. We know that rioters used cell phones and other forms of technology to disseminate intelligence on police movements to maximize the mayhem. The British response to the destruction of life and property was criticized as lackluster at best. London's calamity was certainly on the minds of those men and women who made this decision.

On the other hand, if the worst did happen in San Francisco, law abiding citizens would be unable to warn their friends and loved ones about potential dangers. Is there a right to communicate tied to the right of freedom of speech? San Francisco's action was one of prior restraint, which is normally considered out of bounds by courts. However, if it is laid down as a policy to be used in narrowly defined situations, cities may be able to use this as a tactic to curb thuggish rioters.

Many cities will be watching as the courts examine San Francisco's response to determine if this represents a valid police maneuver to protect life and property, or if it is too restrictive of citizen rights.

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