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Karr writes: "The San Francisco incident is not unique. Earlier this summer Cleveland's City Council passed an ordinance outlawing the use of Facebook and other social media to assemble unruly crowds. While a mayoral veto struck down the Cleveland ruling, the overreaction is part of a spreading official backlash against political organizing on new media."

An unidentified protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask uses his cell phone during a protest at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco, 08/15/11. (photo: Jeff Chiu/AP)
An unidentified protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask uses his cell phone during a protest at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco, 08/15/11. (photo: Jeff Chiu/AP)

BART and the New Era of Censorship

By Timothy Karr, MediaCitizen

18 August 11


'The Courts have decided that money equals speech and in favor of corporate person-hood, but the jury is still out on the right to use your cellphone for political expression.' -- JPS/RSN


have spent most of the week poring over news stories, blogs and commentary on last week's decision by Bay Area Rapid Transit officials to shut off cellphone service to quash planned protests on its trains and platforms.

Opinions are many and range from BART spokesman Linton Johnson, who says constitutional rights end the moment people walk through transit-authority turnstiles, to "X" of the hacker collective Anonymous, who protested BART's action and said our freedom to connect should be absolute and universal.

I tend to agree with "X," but adding my criticism to what has already been heaped on BART seems of little consequence at this point.

What does matter is the dangerous precedent set by public agencies that silence new media, and the need for clarity about our free speech rights regardless of the medium.

The San Francisco incident is not unique. Earlier this summer Cleveland's City Council passed an ordinance outlawing the use of Facebook and other social media to assemble unruly crowds. While a mayoral veto struck down the Cleveland ruling, the overreaction is part of a spreading official backlash against political organizing on new media.

Other governments have responded the same - see China, Burma, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and beyond. In many instances they simply direct the state-run service provider and cellphone carriers to shut down their networks.

In the US, though, companies often flip the kill switch on their own. Verizon Wireless blocked text messages in 2007 that a reproductive rights group sought to send to its members. The carrier decided that the texts were "controversial and unsavory" and implemented a rule buried deep within the company's terms of service that gives Verizon the power to cut off mobile communications "without prior notice and for any reason or no reason."

That Verizon reversed its decision after its censorship was exposed by the New York Times should offer little comfort - neither should the notion that fierce public criticism has sufficiently warned BART against switching off mobile communications in the future.

These incidents reveal a growing pattern of abuse and a great measure of confusion over free speech rights in the tangled realm of new media.

"We have free speech rights everywhere. Or at least everywhere in the US when government applies its power," argues First Amendment scholar Marvin Ammori.

"If the spokesperson for BART reflects BART's understanding about freedom of speech at stations, then BART's leadership is wrong," Ammori says, adding that dismissing the free speech rights of citizens in such a reckless and all-encompassing fashion puts BART on shaky legal ground.

While these are new technologies, this isn't a new issue. People have sought to speak out using the best means available, whether that's strapping a note to a pigeon's leg, handing out printed pamphlets on a street corner or tweeting from the subway.

Governments have routinely sought to shut down technologies that disrupt their authority. But our basic freedoms should remain intact. Whether public and private entities have the right to silence social media and cellphone networks has become a question for the courts.

That's why the recent uptick in US censorship is cause for real concern - and reason enough for our judicial system to provide clarity on behalf of free speech everywhere.

Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press and the Coalition. Karr was the executive director of the MediaChannel and Media for Democracy. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-31 # Alan Adamson 2011-08-18 15:12
So you think it is alright for a group of thugs, using social media, to pinpoint your home, Timothy Karr, for a Flash Mob to break in and help themselves to your possessions as they have in several stores in the United States and England?
+15 # John Gill 2011-08-18 18:43
Alan, what do flash mobs targeting businesses have to do with thugs pinpointing Timothy Karr's home? That is too funny, but aside from that, should the government take away everyone's car keys? I mean hey, bank robbers often use automobiles as getaway vehicles. I think we could probably foil most future bank robberies in this way. But more to the point, perhaps the government should shut down your own personal cell phone, Alan, and internet access too,...I mean, do they know you aren't, even now, pin-pointing someone's home or business for some kind of a flash mob riot...I'm just sayin'...
-7 # chad 2011-08-19 09:26
That is a ridiculous argument about the automobile. You cannot use an exaggerated example to justify your position in an unexaggerated situation. Taking away car keys? To associate an obviously absurd choice like taking car keys away to justify the ridiculousness of another's opposite positon is a matter of gross imbecility. Why don't you say take awawy their air? You assume only business can be targeted, that there is no other possible dastardly acts a flash mob could do? Can't see anything that could burn till your hand is on fire. I'm not surprised.
+16 # Dona Quixote 2011-08-18 18:55
Absolutly not, that is an entirely seperate phenonemn brought about by the dismal opportunities for poor minority youth. JFK said that 'those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." With the continual slashing of programs, education and jobs, the police are now the social agency which must deal with the problem. The political rally action is quite different, and in that, the suppression of speech is quite chilling.
+6 # David Velasquez 2011-08-19 06:52
The democratic and constitutional rights that you'd deny others are the ones you'd deeply miss if they were denied you. The minute you apply conditions to them you open the door to mitigation their application in all aspects and ultimately their complete abrogation on a permanent basis. No temporary sense of safety is equal an eternal sense of hopelessness and despair.
+3 # David Velasquez 2011-08-19 06:52
The democratic and constitutional rights that you'd deny others are the ones you'd deeply miss if they were denied you. The minute you apply conditions to them you open the door to mitigation their application in all aspects and ultimately their complete abrogation on a permanent basis. No temporary sense of safety is equal an eternal sense of hopelessness and despair.
+3 # foxtrottango 2011-08-19 09:33
As like most typical right wing individual, you are trying to justify the greedy interests of the GOP and their corporate masters at the expense of the American working classes. Free assembly is no longer consider a democratic function by corrupted government officials, especially if they are embedded with their corporate buddies. The USA has become a police state and the only purpose for most police and judicial agencies in the USA is to protect the corporate and GOP politician thugs who are trying to block out our freedom of speech. It seem now that countries like Egypt, Syria, Lybia, Iran and even Irag are becoming more advance in declaring their freedom of speeches than we are and they are doing a damn good job of trying to get rid of their thugs, which in fact, were supported by GOP politicians.

The working classes, the taxpayers, education, food for children, medical care for all Americans, exactly the same type those GOP politicians vote themselves for after every election, are is now a declaration, and it seem the GOP has been exposed and is running for cover.

You just better be glad the American working people are doing it by recounting the ballots and not by violence like in the Middle East.

Finally, I compare those street thugs hiding behind the efforts of the working people demonstrating with those of the GOP!
+1 # Rita Walpole Ague 2011-08-20 07:20
So, Alan, you manipulate yourself (and others, with this comment) into thinking that robbers in a group are the same as demonstrators/protestors?

FYI, our land was founded on liberty and justice for all - cornerstone of liberty being freedom of speech by individuals, groups, and the press.

This freedom of speech/assembly is scary to those greed and power addicted who would rule us, enslave us, strip us of rights. If you cannot understand this, then perhaps you would be better off living in a country that is overtly totalitarian, and makes no pretense of land, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
+24 # noitall 2011-08-18 15:34
Naturally, when people know they are screwing everyone over, they don't want the screwees to be talking among themselves. Its a class thing.
+6 # mothra 2011-08-19 09:10
There's no such thing as a "Free Speech Zone" or priorly approved "Free Speech Medium" in the US. You either have Free Speech or you don't. The place and medium aren't the point - if they were, there'd be no effective Free Speech at all. Ask Fox News. Boo. I think the whole point is to stop governing badly, or in ways that inspire the commons to speak instead of Draconianism and cordoning off understandable protest like a virus with assistance from your Corporate Super Friends who are impetus for the measures being protested in the first place - yes? Without Free Speech, many in the world would do anything they want without hearing about it and no one to answer to. Free Speech is the canary in the democracy coal mine. Advocates for it's unlimited exercise promote peace. Without a voice, violence ensues. Squelching Free Speech is like stirring bees. To those discomforted by it, it's actually an early gift unrecognized. A proactive chance to change course before any potential escalation. I'm for it, even when I disagree with the message. I don't like violence. We vote in many ways (dollars, voices) and not always on election day via Diebold, ES&S or Sequoia systems.
+20 # epcraig 2011-08-18 15:34
Your phone is your press whether you're texting or taking pictures or video.
+27 # The Saint 2011-08-18 15:37
I had warned of this when the U.S. government was getting self-righteous about Egypt and Syria cracking down on cell phones, social networks, etc. We saw under Bush what pressure the FBI, CIA, etc. could bring on cell phone and social network and Internet servers. Authorities don't like opposition especially if they can't just arrest one or two leaders. As one on the left, I find myself in the libertarian camp at times. Enjoy your freedom while you have it. Or find ways to bypass those companies and/or governmental agencies who fear the "unsavory" nature of dissent and want tweets to be only about food for lunch, hairdos, reaction to some News pundit (FOX or CNN) who is safe. God help you if you start attacking corporate bankers or financiers or lobbyists who run the country.Meanwhi le find alternatives just in case.But given the political apathy of so many, mired in social blabber, political activists might not be considered worth the effort.
+9 # jon 2011-08-18 19:36
"Meanwhile find alternatives just in case"

Here is a super easy alternative(!), and a beginning - which is what we NEED:

Everyone, move OUT of a commercial bank and start using your local credit union.

It does not take much time, just DOIT!
+17 # rsb1 2011-08-18 15:37
What ?? So....... it's OK/approved by 'The Administration' for social media to be used to create social awareness and/or instability and political unrest in other countries BUT NOT INSIDE THE UNITED STATES ??
+15 # noitall 2011-08-18 15:46
I think that those who manage the People's air waves should respond more to the needs of the People rather than the needs of the lessees who would use this public resource to control the People. Doesn't this make sense? Those people who we elect to run the business of the People, need to be brought into line. If the vote has been usurped by computer hackers, miscounted votes, etc., then let us meet in each state and vote by a show of hands with each issue clearly stated. This country was formed by the hands-on action of the people and it must be put back in order in the same way HANDS ON. Those who would squelch the modern means for the People to be HANDS ON commit treason against the will of the PEOPLE. Doesn't the Constitution say something about all of this? If so, why the debate? The People need the ability to be heard if this Democracy and this Republic is to stand. Those people who wish to bring down our Democracy and our Republic are the very same people who would censor our means of communication and Killing our free speech. Did the People speak if their words were buried by the lessors of our airwaves?
-9 # Joe Honick` 2011-08-18 15:51
There is legitimately a lot of controversy on this matter. However, does Free Press or anyone else believe there are no proper reasons to disrupt communicartions when safety might be involved? I abhor censorship in all its forms as much as anyone, but we do know that many terrorirst acts might at least have been slowed or muckedup in this manner.
Let us not be simplistic on the subject. While I cannot specifically address the SF situation, I would indeed endorse disrupting commuication that threatened public safety, especially when there are plenty of means to massively demonstrate and protest otherwise.
+1 # kyzipster 2011-08-21 09:53
We have to question who is defining a threat to public safety. The GOP during their 2004 convention in New York that suppressed peaceful protests, arresting hundreds of innocent people? Local law enforcement in the South during the protests of the civil rights era?

The article is suggesting that the courts need to work this out rather than BART and Verizon making up their own rules, even law enforcement needs a rule of law to follow or there is chaos and oppression.
+11 # rtrues54 2011-08-18 15:55
ALL of US must stand up to these countless abuses of authority. If laws and/or rules even APPEAR to violate the rights of the MAJORITY, then we MUST BREAK THOSE LAWS.... EN MASSE!!!!!

-20 # 2011-08-18 15:59
I thought BART's direction to be correct.
-12 # LeeBlack 2011-08-18 16:51
Freedom of speech is a precious right we enjoy and should be protected YET there should be a recognition of responsibility which should accompany that right. One could picture a time when each day will bring a new demonstration in the public square. Those who have problems with either side of the abortion issue; voter registration; taxes, whatever. While these are important issues and people can be highly motivated by them they are different from the demonstrations we’ve seen in Egypt, Iran and Syria.
+8 # John Gill 2011-08-18 18:53
If only we lived in such a country, where each day we saw a new demonstration in the public square, where the grievances of our citizens were more frequently aired, and loudly, so the politicians would pay a bit more attention instead of relying on the only government subsidized food programs the republicans don't whine about to keep us all fat and sleepy...that's right folks, I'm talkin' about your neighborhood MacDonald's burger joint and all those other highly profitable corporate social welfare programs that our tax dollars support. Until we decide to gather together in one gigantic boycott of the system, the system will rule the people instead of the other way round.
+1 # kyzipster 2011-08-21 10:00
I'd say the protests of the civil rights era and of the labor movement prior to that have some similarities to Egypt etc, in the government's response. I'd hate to think where we'd be without these movements in our history. Although conservatives are attempting to role back all progress made over the last century and they've made a lot of progress.

With such a dysfunctional government that refuses to reflect the will of the majority, demonstrations are our only option.
+6 # roger booth 2011-08-18 17:55
What they fear is that some day those who wish to loot and riot, will figure out that they are attacking the worng buildings. When they realize that the most effective way to get their point across is to get to the government buildings and burn those rather than taking out their anger on other victims of governmental policy, then they will cross the line and from thuggs will arise Revolutionaries .
-6 # Jean A Mumma 2011-08-18 20:04
It is my understanding that the cell cut off was below ground by the BART tracks. There was no cut off above that area at ground level. Demonstrations next to the tracks in such a confined space certainly would have been dangerous to all. BART made a good call for the safety of the people.
+5 # Gaiabreeze 2011-08-18 21:21
"That's why the recent uptick in US censorship is cause for real concern - and reason enough for our judicial system to provide clarity on behalf of free speech everywhere."
I wouldn't count on the courts if I were you - ever since the corporations became big people, the rest of us have certainly started to shrink.
+5 # Regina 2011-08-18 23:28
Amazing -- corporations and other large organizations, which (note the "which," it goes with things, not people) exhibit no biological functions that would identify them as persons, are said by the Supreme Court to have free speech rights identical with those of persons, even though those rights are exercised with money, not speech. But living people may be denied free speech by corporations whenever such speech is opposed to the corporate desideratum.
+2 # larryoinpdx 2011-08-19 00:34
"Shaky legal ground?" BART's position is preposterous. What part of "no law" doesn't BART understand?

It doesn't matter what the people were talking or texting about - if they incite a riot, the text messages and/or evidence of the calls is easily available to the authorities from the cellular providers, but that is *after* the crime, if any, has been committed. There is no prior restraint on text messages or phone calls permitted no matter how threatened the official weenies feel.
0 # boudreaux 2011-08-19 08:40
I thought BART's direction to be correct.

I watched some of those flash mobs on TV and I can tell you one thing, I don't want to be caught in one, and it's not just political, they are robbing stores and vandelesing, and who to say that the gangs would not start using these to organize, when do you draw a line in the sand and how can we as a people make it safer for us too... I think that is my main question, what will keep us out of the line of fire..
I don't believe in taking anyone's stuff away from them, but if it is going to do me harm as a person, I most certaianly want it stopped....SO please tell me what anyone proposes to make it safer for the common person out for a walk one day...Can any of my friends on here tell me or others who might think like me, what do you do when it involves innocent people who are just in the line of fire and can be taken out. I do not believe that this will stay just on politics, not from what I have seen on the TV, it could escalate to other crimes and deadly force being used on those who know nothing about it and caught in the crossfire....SO what is the answer to this upcoming mess? How am I supposed to be protected from political, gang and crime related issues that I have no part in??....I'm not just looking at today, I'm looking at the future too...
0 # June 2011-08-20 19:20
I live outside Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland Hts and Shaker Hts were the victims of teenage thugs and criminals who used their FaceBook and Cell phones to assemble and attack. Free speech and political assembly had absolutely nothing to do with these Flash Mobs. Their prime objective was to attack, hurt and destroy. And to do it in a neighborhood they did not live in. Don't confuse political assembly with Flash Mobs. They are not the same.
0 # kyzipster 2011-08-21 10:03
The question seems to be who is it that is going to distinguish between political protest and a flash mob? The article is making a case that it's the courts that should establish the rules, not BART or Verizon or Facebook.
0 # MikeM27 2011-08-20 21:43
Even though they vary in the severity of their censorship governments routinely over-reach in supressing their citizens' speech. In my opinion, Governmental entities in the USA (federal, state and local), still tend to be less suppressive than those of most post-industrial nations, the Patriot Act and the federal government's treatment of Bradley Manning notwithstanding . BART is a public authority and as such, it is open to some degree of public scrutiny, at least according to law and to democratic theory.

Sadly, most private entities have much less public scrutiny. Indeed, they grow larger and more powerful as they buy up and control the means to express speech. Money is property, but our courts have decided that it is fungible for speech. It can even be exchanged for other peoples' speech. When you own the backbones of the Internet and the related media required to communicate information to mass audiences, not to mention those politicians who call this ownership a "free press," you can exercise censorship whenever you perceive that the hoi polloi's plans threaten to disrupt the social order in a manner that may harm your interests.

Forget about law and democratic tradition. When the masses get restless, money almost always rules. USA! USA!

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