Courts, not FCC, Should Protect Free Speech against Mobile Service Shut-offs

by on March 2, 2012 · 2 comments

Today, the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry, responding to an emergency petition filed last August regarding temporary shutdown of mobile services by officers of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) district. The petition asked the FCC to issue a declaratory ruling that the shutdown violated the Communications Act. The following statement can be attributed to Larry Downes, Senior Adjunct Fellow at TechFreedom, and Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom:

What BART did clearly violated the First Amendment, and needlessly put passengers at risk by cutting off emergency services just when they were needed most. But we need a court to say so, not the FCC.

The FCC has no authority here. The state did not order the shutdown of the network, nor does the state run the network. BART police simply turned off equipment it doesn’t own—a likely violation of its contractual obligations to the carriers. But BART did nothing that violated FCC rules governing network operators. To declare the local government an “agent” of the carriers would set an extremely dangerous precedent for an agency with a long track-record of regulatory creep.

There are other compelling reasons to use the courts and not regulators to enforce free speech rights. Regulatory agencies move far too slowly. Here, it took the FCC six months just to open an inquiry! Worse, today’s Notice of Inquiry will lead, if anything, to more muddled rulings and regulations. These may unintentionally give cover to local authorities trying to parse them for exceptions and exclusions, or at least the pretense of operating within FCC guidelines.

It would have been far better to make clear to BART, either through negotiations or the courts, that their actions were unconstitutional and dangerous. Long before today’s action, BART adopted new policies that better respect First Amendment rights and common sense. But now the regulatory wheels have creaked into motion. Who knows where they’ll take us, or when?

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