Taming the Mob

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Indeed “they” are. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) characterized the agency’s decision as “glaringly small-minded,” noting that people in other countries “are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes,” and asking whether Americans are “willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?” The organization further notes that government shutdowns might not be limited to phone service. “These protestors were using public transportation to get to the demonstration–should the government be able to shut that down too?” they ask.

Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in free-speech issues, focused on an equally vexing point. “We can arrest and prosecute people for the crimes they commit,” he said. “You are not allowed to shut down people’s cellphones and prevent them from speaking because you think they might commit a crime in the future.” Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, noted that there is a balance between free speech and public safety. “An agency like BART has to be held to a very high standard,” he said. Yet he conceded Caplan’s point. “First of all, it has to be an immediate threat, not just the mere supposition that there might be one. And I think the response has to be what a court would consider reasonable, so it has to be the minimum amount of restraint on free expression,” he added.

University of Michigan law professor Len Niehoff, who specializes in First Amendment and media law issues, contended the shutdown made no distinction between “peaceful or unpeaceful, lawful or unlawful,” expressions of free speech, which he characterized as “constitutionally, very problematic.” And while he noted that government has the right to break up demonstrations in areas where they are prohibited and/or pose a risk to public safety, “to keep people from talking about what they might or might not do, based on the idea that they might all agree to violate the law, is positively Orwellian,” he said.

Another protest, one based on the shutdown itself, not the shooting of Charles Hill, is ostensibly scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m. The online “hacktivist” group known as Anonymous has posted a notice to that effect on its Web site, saying it will be a “peaceful protest at Civic Center station to illustrate the solidarity with people we once knew and to stand up for your rights and those of your fellow citizens.” The site further notes that protesters will be wearing “’blood’ stained shirts for remembrance to (sic) the blood that is on the hands of the BART police.”

Anonymous has been linked to several cyber attacks around the world, including one which shut down the Master Card Web site in 2010. It has also been credited with successfully hacking Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Sony, major law and security firms, and foreign governments. The group is able to do so with a technique known as a “distributed denial of service attack” (DDoS). DDoS takes down a Web server when a lot of people deliberately overwhelm bandwidth capacity of that server. The closing statement on the group’s Web site: “We are Anonymous, We are legion, We never forgive, We never forget, Expect us.”

What Americans are being forced to expect is a daunting intersection between technology and anarchy — or totalitarianism. Ironically, it is the anarchy of technologically-organized flash demonstrations, or as we have seen in Britain, riots, that may lead to technologically-organized government suppression. And while such suppression would most likely to be imposed, it is not inconceivable that it may be demanded by the public itself, outraged by a constant string of disruptions to everyday life. Which parts of the Constitution Americans might be willing to sacrifice for “a little peace and quiet” is anyone’s guess.

How complicated is this issue? It could be said that BART did the wrong thing for all the right reasons — or the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Either way, one thing is certain: technology and the Constitution are on a collision course. It is a collision that may radically alter our conceptions regarding rights and responsibilities.

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  • StephenD

    The points were made. We here in a Free Society hold dear the right to Free Speech. Arrest those fools that commit crimes but do not infringe on our right to speak. We recognize the risk inherent in the practice of this right to free speech, in that some may be offended and some may be in danger. This is the price we are willing to pay. We wouldn't need a law protecting that right if all that was said was not offensive or dangerous; if everything said was innocuous there would be no need for the law at all. We also recognize that as soon as you justify the infringement on our right to free speech it is a short fall to the squelching of all our other rights. As soon as we cannot object or disagree, the person with the Bullhorn gets to make the rules. We say, Not here in America…Not Ever.

  • LB Samms

    Should the demonstrators have a right to shut down access to transportation for people who's livelihood depends on getting to their jobs by public transport? Should the Supreme Court have given radical demonstrators a right to disrupt military burials and to terrorize the mourners? Let's not allow the activists to go outside the rule of law (sacred to our Republic) to make their point—take the question to the Courts. Want to go the direction of Europe—to the Left's brand of anarchy? Yes, choosing which speech takes away rights of others IS a slippery slope, but when the slope leads to destruction of the fabric of society, then society has to make choices. The democratic process—the vote, the courts, ammendment, peaceful demonstration—-is how we deal with those who exceed the bounds of limits. The Founders did not intend an absolute right to free speech, and they set limits, i.e., time of war. Let's not follow the Left in their brand of moral relativism.

    • StephenD

      Of course you are right. But this goes along with what I said, "Arrest those fools that commit crimes." NO OTHER action is justifiable. To squelch our freedom of speech is to take all our rights away. If there is danger to the public then do what needs to be done; dispersing crowds, policing the public transportation areas, etc. But to justify curtailment of your right to speak freely because it may be offensive is exactly WRONG. I hate the thought of those disgraceful Dolts protesting at funerals. They cross the line of decency in everyone's book. Are there any laws by which this can be addressed? All I know is a blanket policy, even with great intentions, can be to our detriment in the long run.
      The risk is that Anarchists and Malcontents get their say. Our response is that it is worth the risk. If they cross the legal line, hit them hard and make the charges stick. Short of that, let them speak!
      Remember what Franklin said, "Those that sacrifice Liberty for Security in the end, find they have neither."

  • Chris Gleason

    The riots in San Francisco, Britain and elsewhere are not impromptu demonstrations about a specific action. They are orchestrated and choreographed by forces at work everywhere to disrupt and confuse, to frighten the populace. They already have the governments and police authorities scared. Time to crack down.

    • http://www.contextflexed.com Flipside

      Yeah. On the governments and the police.

  • alexander

    it is all TESTING………………………………………testing the system….what cops will do and do not…….for 2012………when Bummer will not be reelected….then….then…. they will show their real f(uk)ace

  • http://www.calreview.com Dave Roberts

    Just as no one has the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, anarchists and terrorists do not have the right to use cellphones to coordinate riots on crowded subway platforms.

  • tagalog

    The demonstrators shouted, "Kill Pigs." Ahh, it takes me back to the old days. Kids who long for a repeat of the 60s, head for San Francisco. Make sure to get a round-trip ticket; you probably will want to get back home pretty quick, and make it to the airport or bus station before they get shut down, too.

    Hey punk, where ya goin' with that button on yer shirt?
    Hey punk, where ya goin' with that button on yer shirt?
    I'm goin' out to Frisco to sit and play my bongos in the dirt!