Censoring Social Media as a Tool of Oppression

August 14th, 2011

Could you imagine the uproars if the state attempted to shut down newspapers, or television stations, or limited their ability to publish stories? It would be bedlam. Now substitute newspaper for facebook and television station for text messaging. Does it still seem as bad? Probably not. Inf act, governments around the world are censoring access to social media to help stifle resistance–from statist countries like Egypt and Iran to so-called free countries (with miserable free speech laws) like England.

But wait, this is also happening, to a small extent, in the People’s Republic of San Francisco.

When the Mubarak government did that to Egypt’s Internet service last winter, it was met with outrage and underscored that the regime’s days were numbered. When the San Francisco rapid transit system killed its underground cellphone service Thursday night, it also prompted a wave of anger.

Officials were concerned that the protestors “would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of Bart police,” the transit agency said Friday afternoon in a statement. Cutting off cellphone service for several hours at selected stations was “one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform,” Bart said.

My good friend, and Harlan Institute Board of Advisers Member, Marvin Ammori had this to say (building on his cool article on Constitutional Spaces, which I read at an early stage):

But courts are often receptive to content-neutral assertions by a government agency. Because courts are receptive, government agencies can often close spaces where citizens gather to speak (or dance). Courts’ receptiveness to content-neutral claims is not good for freedom of speech in the US.  And courts shouldn’t be receptive to claims by the BART, or any other government agency, that it should be able to silence technologies and undermine protests and gatherings merely in the name of safety and order. Such arguments deserve the hashtag of #Mubartek, and judicial condemnation, not the imprimatur of the courts.

How did BART rationalize this stupidity:

Organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police. 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.

Eugene Volokh had this to say:

I’m inclined to say that this is constitutional, because BART is government property that’s not a “traditional public forum.” (Likewise, I think it’s constitutional for a university to block wireless reception in classrooms, in order to diminish distraction, something that some public universities do.)

The restriction is facially content-neutral, but the justification is related to the content of the speech that the government is worried about — the government isn’t just trying to prevent physical disruption caused by the noncommunicative effects of cell phones, as with the restrictions on cell phones on airplanes, but physical disruption caused by what people communicate to each other using cell phones — and I think that it should suffice to make the restriction content-based. But on government property (outside traditional public fora such as sidewalks and parks), the government has a good deal of authority to impose content-based but viewpoint-neutral and reasonable restrictions. And the restriction here did seem to be both viewpoint-neutral and reasonable.

H/T Steve R.