BART takes aim at the First Amendment

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

BART — the Bay Area Rapid Transit System — apparently is bent on finding ways to challenge just about every freedom in the First Amendment.

First, it was a local-then-national flap over BART’s decision to block cell-phone signals in parts of its subway system in an attempt to prevent protesters from gathering on station platforms.

The system’s administrators cited safety concerns, but protesters — angry over the shooting of a homeless man by BART police — didn’t buy that. They saw the shutdown as the first-ever government attempt in the United States to block free speech by cutting off wireless communications. Some First Amendment advocates also say the move restricted the rights to assemble and to petition for “redress of grievances.”

In the most-recent conflict, BART police on Sept. 8 detained a number of journalists from student publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle, who were covering a protest against the system and its police unit.

In an Associated Press report, BART officials defended their decision to detain the journalists, saying they asked the reporters to leave and could not check credentials in the heat of the moment. They’re reported to be considering setting up special zones or areas for journalists — leave that area and you are subject to arrest. Such zones may make it easier for police to monitor who is who, but also likely will keep journalists from mingling with protesters or doing interviews — essentially restricting the work of newsgathering and preventing them from doing their jobs.

So, thus far, of the five freedoms in the First Amendment, BART has come up against speech, assembly and petition, and now seems to be struggling with how to deal with a free press.

The only “untouched” freedom remaining is religion. Let’s hope that’s more of a constitutional wake-up call to BART’s leadership than a challenge.

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