Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ok, now you're just makin' stuff up

The heretofore harmless "flash mob" phenomenon -- groups of people arranging to meet at specific times and places to burst into song, break into dance, etc. -- appears to have been co-opted by anarchists, criminals and other ne'er-do-wells.

That's life. It's the way culture evolves.

Last Thursday the folks who run BART, San Francisco's commuter rail line, were expecting just such a mob, reportedly to protest July's fatal shooting involving a BART police officer. In an effort to disrupt the protest, BART cut cell-phone service (including 911 service) on its train platforms for three hours.

If you ask me, that was a lousy idea -- BART had smarter options. What I find stranger, however, is the fallout. Take this reaction from Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
"It's very clearly a major First Amendment problem whenever a government agency takes it upon itself to simply prevent people from being able to speak."
Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center seems to agree:
"If government was seizing printing presses to keep people from understanding or learning something, I think traditionally in this country that would just be beyond the pale. The question is, does a momentary disruption of cell phone service constitute that kind of level of government interference with speech?"
BART's Linton Johnson, responding to the criticism, offered this:
"There is a constitutional right to safety. A lot of people are forgetting the fact that there are multiple constitutional rights and are focusing solely on one."
I hardly know where to begin here. I guess I'll start with the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
"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."
I'll grant that we need to re-examine human, civil and constitutional rights in the context of a high-tech society but, the way I read the First Amendment, we aren't guaranteed cell phones and 911 service.

The freedom to speak and the ability to communicate are two very different things.

What's more, in this Nanny State of ours -- and let's face it, no state is nannier than the People's Republic of California -- government always will err on the side of public safety. That principle-of-power often is exploited and abused, of course, which explains how we end up with CCTV and other measures taken "for our own good."

Most of the time there's nothing good about it. BART could've (and perhaps should've) secured its platforms another way, some less oppressive way, but it didn't -- that's how it works these days. It's inescapable and here to stay. We'd best stop pretending otherwise.

Now, going back to BART's astounding contention:
"There is a constitutional right to safety."
That's just bizarre, even for California. Even for San Francisco, which has burdened us with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Emiel Goldman Berman Feinstein Blum, it's truly bizarre.

Would somebody please show me where the hell in the Constitution we're guaranteed a right to safety? Anyone?

I know where these rumors get started -- namely in the anti-Liberty, pro-entitlements crowd -- and its home office undoubtedly is SF, PRC. But no matter how common it is, it's unfiltered bullshit.

In this debate, one argument strains credibility while the other side has none at all. I'm fooled by neither.