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Another Reason to Privatize

Private companies have rights; government does not.

By Petrarch  |  August 18, 2011

We've often explained why private industry should provide as many services as possible, even those for which there is a legitimate argument for government funding.  Police and soldiers are government employees, but their guns and vehicles are bought from private firms which make them.  It's a good idea for all children to receive an education, but the government public-school monopoly has amply demonstrated why it's a bad idea for government to try to provide that education through its own employees.

From the postal service to the Congressional cafeteria, forests have been felled detailing the inefficiency, general incompetence, and egregious expense incurred when government tries to do something private enterprise can do perfectly well.

Saving money, however, is not the only reason why privatization is a good thing, as the most liberal place in America learned last week:

Can you hear me now?

Transit officials blocked cellphone reception in San Francisco train stations for three hours to disrupt planned demonstrations over a police shooting.

Officials with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system said Friday that they turned off electricity to cellular towers in four stations from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. The move was made after BART learned that protesters planned to use mobile devices to coordinate a demonstration on train platforms.

The tactic drew comparisons to those used by the former president of Egypt to squelch protests demanding an end to his authoritarian rule. Authorities there cut Internet and cellphone services in the country for days earlier this year.

Here's What Happened

There has been confusion about exactly what happened, so let's clarify the record.

In the United States, any sort of cellphone-jamming device is strictly illegal, even to keep convicts from using cell phones which were smuggled into the prison.  Some early reports said that the San Francisco subway system, called BART, jammed cellphone use in their stations to disrupt a planned protest against the government.  This would have been a criminal act, but it's not what they did.

As most people know, signals from your cellphone to a local tower can't go through the earth.  If you're underground in a subway train or station, you get no signal.

There is a way around this: put a mini-tower repeater inside the station or the tunnel with antennas that can reach out and touch your personal cellphone while you're on the platform.  BART installed just such a system a few years ago, thus giving its passengers cellphone service that they'd never had before.

Mini-towers require electricity, of course.  BART's cellphone contractor, logically enough, plugged the equipment into BART's power panel.  To turn off the cellphone service, BART technicians simply switched off the appropriate breakers.  Shazzam!  Cellphone signals gone.

BART wasn't jamming the signals, they simply stopped forwarding them.  This was all entirely legal as they have no obligation to forward signals in the first place; it was provided as a courtesy and convenience, nothing more.

One little problem: BART is a government agency.  Private entities don't have to obey the Constitution, but government actors do.

By crippling the ability to communicate in order to thwart a protest against government power, BART committed a cardinal Constitutional sin against the First Amendment.  If there's one form of speech our Founders valued above all others, it's political speech.  Thomas Jefferson would be horrified.

There Is Another Way

Once again, the statist left has fallen foul of their lust for power.  BART's censorship of cellphone-users matters only because BART is a government agency.

There are no private commuter passenger railroads in the United States anymore, but there are private Wi-Fi-enabled bus lines like the Bolt company that goes between Washington and New York.  Suppose, for whatever reason, Bolt Bus decided to turn off Wi-Fi on one or all of their buses, perhaps because they knew many of their passengers were on their way to a protest they didn't like.

You might disagree with Bolt's action and choose not to use them in the future.  But that's all you can do!  It's Bolt's bus and Bolt's Wi-Fi - they have every right to turn it on and off exactly as they prefer and no doubt the fine print on the ticket clearly gives no guarantee that the service will actually be operating.  No crime, no argument, no issue.

If San Francisco's subway were privately operated, as those of New York once were, the San Francisco city fathers could have had their censorship with a simple phone call to their golf buddy, the CEO of the subway company.

Since San Francisco is decidedly statist, however, the government must own and operate every single public service.  Ownership puts them under the limitations of the Bill of Rights.  We trust a pending lawsuit will remind the far-left totalitarians in San Francisco City Hall that there still is a Constitution, and they're still expected to honor it whether they like it or not.