BART on Thursday became the first public transit agency in the nation to prohibit cellphone blackouts in stations except in the event of "extraordinary" threats.
BART was also the first public transit agency in the country to have created such a blackout. It was a move that outraged free speech advocates worldwide when BART cut off cell service at four underground stations Aug. 11 to thwart a protest over shootings by transit police.
BART Board President Bob Franklin said the policy strikes a balance between protecting free speech and public safety.
"Cell service interruptions could happen only under extraordinary circumstances when there is an imminent threat," he said. "If we had the same situation come up again as Aug. 11, we would handle it differently. BART police would arrest those who threatened to disrupt train service." The vote to vastly limit blackouts was 7-0.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union stopped short of endorsing the policy but said it's good that BART has defined limits.
"You don't shut down free speech before it happens," said Linda Lye, an attorney for the ACLU, which submitted language used in the policy. "I think this was a teaching moment."
Under the new policy, BART would interrupt cellphone service only if there is "strong evidence of imminent illegal activity" that threatens passengers, workers or property or poses a substantial disruption to service.
BART managers said they acted reasonably to preserve train service that day, when they cut off cellphone communications for four hours at four San Francisco stations to thwart a planned protest.
BART police have said they had evidence that protesters planned to disrupt transit service by chaining themselves to trains or other equipment.
The blackout, however, angered many and fueled more protests against the transit system.
After holding long discussions on the policy at two previous meetings, most BART directors eagerly endorsed the final wording.
However, Director Lynette Sweet, of San Francisco, said she has reservations about giving BART managers authority to turn off phone equipment to silence dissent.
"It leaves the door open," said Sweet, who was out of the room Thursday when the vote took place. "The policy is still vague."
Bryce Nesbit, an Oakland resident, told the board that suspending cellphone service was warranted to prevent a terrorist attack, but he questioned whether a threat to train service was adequate grounds.
"It opens the board up to claims about free speech," Nesbit said. "It's not worth it."
Some BART critics have suggested that only a court judge or the Federal Communications Commission had authority to turn off the service.
The FCC, however, on Wednesday submitted suggestions that BART add wording to its policy that open communications are important to the economy and that the agency must carefully weigh whether public safety risks outweigh disruption of cellphone service.
The blackouts apply only to underground stations, where BART controls the equipment that relays cell signals that customers otherwise could not get.
BART board members have been divided over whether the blackout was warranted that day, but directors agreed later that they, not staff, should set the blackout policy.