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Hacking: Anonymous takes on BART

August 15, 2011 | 12:27 pm

A BART protest in July that set the stage for agency officials to shut down cellphone service in stations, drawing an attack from Anonymous
It's hard to sympathize with a group of vigilantes that causes as much collateral damage as Anonymous does, but the hacker collective at least has a point in its ongoing assault on websites associated with the Bay Area's BART system.

Anonymous began its cyber assault on BART on Friday after the agency shut down cellphone service in four San Francisco stations during the Thursday afternoon commuter rush. The rationale: A group called No Justice No BART had called on supporters to slip into the downtown stations Thursday and conduct protests on the platforms at 5 p.m., demanding that BART fire the officer who fatally shot a homeless man beside the Civic Center station tracks. BART officials posted a statement online explaining their concerns:

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.

The agency also defended itself against allegations that the shutdown itself endangered riders:

Cell phone service was not interrupted outside BART stations. In addition, numerous BART Police officers and other BART personnel with radios were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity.

BART contends that the 1st Amendment does not extend to train platforms and other "paid areas" that are reserved for train passengers and agency employees. That's an, umm, interesting argument.

The Supreme Court has allowed the government to impose some limits on speech in general and political speech in particular; it can, for example, bar protesters from the immediate vicinity of abortion clinics or funerals. But those restrictions seem to fall under the general heading of protecting people from intimidation and harassment. BART's intent, on the other hand, was to spare people the inconvenience of having to walk by (probably noisy) protesters as they got on and off trains.

Granted, putting crowds of people on a train platform could make it less safe if passengers have to fight their way through to reach the trains. But that's a crowd-control issue, not a speech issue. And that's how BART should have approached the planned protests last Thurdsay. It sniffed out the protests in advance and could have directed extra BART officers to the platforms in question to make sure the protesters weren't impeding passengers.

Instead, it acted to prevent the protests from happening, which is akin to a prior restraint on speech. The Supreme Court has been particularly hostile to that form of government action, especially when there are less restrictive means available to achieve the same end.

Sadly, the misdeeds by Anonymous' hackers detracted from the cause they championed. There's no justification for grabbing personal information out of BART's site and making it public. But then, Anonymous seems to hew to an "ends justify the means" strategy. Just, in this case, like BART.

RELATED:

Partisan pictures: Movies vs. campaign ads

Threatening Obama: The high price of free speech

Supreme Court justices can pick from two First Amendments

-- Jon Healey

Photo: BART employees pull a protester off a train at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco on July 11. Credit:  Eric Risberg / Associated Press

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