Via /charlene on Flickr

A few weeks ago, cell service in four Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations was shut down as protestors worked to organize themselves over an incident in which a BART police officer shot and killed Charles Blair Hill on July 3rd.  In order to disrupt the protestors’ coordination via social media, BART suspended access to the stations’ cell networks. BART’s official statement on this move suggested that a protest could have led to overcrowding on the train platforms, posing dangerous conditions in the stations. However, this is a debatable excuse, as riders’ safety could just as easily be jeopardized during a legitimate emergency in which no one could dial 911.

One thing BART didn’t plan for was the backlash against their shutting down the network. By working to avert one protest, they quickly found themselves under attack, from both increased demonstrations and by hackers revolting and compromising BART computers and data. In addition, some are considering BART’s action as an assault on free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has been considering filing a lawsuit against BART, noting that “Both the California Constitution and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect your right to free expression.”

While it’s no surprise that oppressive regimes would act to restrict communication between people organizing, most of us would hope similar actions would fail to be found in the US, but unfortunately, it seems that even the States is not immune to these attacks on technologies serving free speech. We expect the role of social media in planned gatherings to continue to be a hot topic of debate for the foreseeable future.