Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is the First Amendment of the Constitution and nowhere in there does it guarantee cell service.
Over the past two weeks, the online activist group Anonymous has forced a shut down to a small number of BART stations in San Francisco in protest, with a third protest being planned for Monday, August 29. The initial protest carried much merit as it focused on power exerted by BART police in the shooting of Charles Blair Hill on July 3. Since then, the battle between Anonymous and BART officials has deteriorated into a spat between spoiled six-year olds.
BART landed the initial blow when officials disrupted cell phone service at the Civic Center station during the planned August 15 rally. Officials said the move was a security measure to ensure the safety of riders. Anonymous saw it as a violation of free speech.
Both sides are wrong.
BART officials cutting cell service and WiFi in order to limit communication between protesters was a dirty deed, but it in no way violated the First Amendment. Since this occurred, Anonymous has relentlessly laid into BART officials. The “Hacktivists” posted personal information lifted from both the bart.gov website as well as the BART Police union website. The two organizations have an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse going by trying to figure out which stations to temporarily close in order to limit rider-activist interaction (and the ensuing chaos).
Anonymous has singled out BART spokesman Linton Johnson (who, at one point, took credit for the “interrupt cell service” idea) as its whipping boy. Numerous tweets and blog posts have called for Johnson’s resignation via veiled threats of increased protests and blackmail. Semi-nude photos of Johnson were even leaked online as part of the groups ploy. (Members of Anonymous have spoken out against the release of the picture, further revealing the unclear dynamic in which the group operates.)
Yet all Anonymous has done is annoy commuters, ruffle a few feathers and lose track of the original focus. Hill’s death has become irrelevant in the dispute between the two feuding factions. The focus has fallen on free speech, which was never an issue to begin with.
No one has taken away the group’s right to assemble peaceably or restricted speech in any way. All BART officials did was limit the way in which people could communicate. Activists have been able to spread word of uprising long before cell phones or the Internet.
Anti-war activists weren’t tweeting for LBJ to bring home the troops from Vietnam. Cesar Chavez didn’t need a Facebook page to unionize field workers. I doubt “Tank Man” was standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square screaming, “Can you hear me now?”
Anonymous responded to BART officials’ actions very irresponsibly. Their reaction was similar to a kid calling Child Protective Services because his mother said “No video games until your room is clean.”
Anonymous has done some very positive things with its brand of activism. The attack on BART is not one of them. All the group is proving is this generation’s reliance on technology.
Take away Internet connection and “Hacktivists” just become hacks.