U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron apparently seriously considered shutting down social media and wireless service during the almost-weeklong U.K. riots. It didn’t happen, but it begs the question of whether such a step could be taken here.
It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Last Thursday, after learning that protesters were planning to use social media and text messaging to organize a protest against police brutality on one of the subway platforms, the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency shut down cellphone service at several BART stations. According to its official statement, the service suspension was a necessary measure in order to maintain public safety:
A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators. BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.
It seems that BART’s preemptive efforts suceeded in squelching the protest. This might seem like a small local story, but it has big implications. This was the first time in U.S. history that a government agency has shut down cellphone service in order to control a planned protest. It’s a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line between protecting public safety and totalitarian disregard for First Amendment rights? And who gets to draw that line? You don’t have to be a card-carrying Tea Party member to feel a little queasy about some government bureaucrats deciding such a thing. For now it was just a temporary suspension of cell service at a few subway stations in San Francisco (of all places, the bastion of liberalism), but who knows how much further our government is willing to encroach upon our right to free speech and right to assembly.
Technology and social media have changed the way we communicate and the ease with which we do so. That doesn’t mean that our First Amendment rights have changed or that governments should be able to act so brazenly in ways that so clearly compromise them.
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