By John Wildermuth
Originally posted at

Did the Founding Fathers really believe that we have the unalienable right to life, liberty and uninterrupted underground cell phone service?

You’d think so if you’ve been reading the various screeds that have come out since officials of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District turned off cell phone service in some of their subway stations for three hours last week in an effort to keep protesters from shutting down the system.

The shutoff “was a shameful attack on free speech,” raged the Electronic Frontier Foundation, comparing it to the actions of dictators in Egypt and Syria cutting phone service to peaceful anti-government demonstrators.

The ACLU called it a clear violation of the First Amendment. The international hacker group Anonymous warned that the group “will attempt to show those engaging in the censorship what it feels like to be silenced.” That was followed by electronic attacks on a pair of BART websites, with personal information of the system’s riders and police officers grabbed and posted on-line.

BART officials, for their part, argue that all they did was shut down the part of the cellular system they owned and installed in their own tunnels to block protesters from disrupting train service by using Tweets, e-mails and text message to coordinate demonstrations.

It wasn’t an idle threat. During the recent London riots, hooligans used cell phones and social media to avoid police and set targets for looting. In the U.S., police are concerned about “flash mobs,” which can use sites like Twitter and Facebook to arrange lightning-fast raids on stores and businesses.

What’s playing out is another battle between the First Amendment absolutists and those who think there have to be some limits, such as a ban on falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted in the 1919 case, Schenck v. United States.

Holmes’ majority ruling was overturned in the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, which gives some idea of how long this fight has been going on, and the BART v. the cell phones case undoubtedly will be making its own way into the courthouse in the not-too-distant future.

But what’s most striking in this new ruckus is the growing belief that people have the right, if not the duty, to be connected to whomever they want, whenever they want, wherever they are.

What about those poor travelers, trapped underground with no way to call home, chat with friends or read their e-mail? In other words, people forced to deal with life on the subway platform much as they did a few years ago, before BART voluntarily added the underground cellular service.

If cellular service is a new right, AT&T is in big trouble at my house, which is smack in the middle of one of their dead zones.

Hard as it is for anyone under 30 to believe, it wasn’t that long ago when cell phones were little more than boat-anchor-size curiosities and newspaper reporters lived their professional lives with little more than a notebook, a pager, a pocket full of quarters and near photographic recall of where every pay phone in the area could be found.

For most people, a telephone was something you used at work or at home, not in the grocery line, at the ballgame or walking down the street.

But that 13 percent penetration cell phones had just 15 years ago in this country is now well over 90 percent and that’s a good thing. Progress and all that and who doesn’t like to play  “Angry Birds” and “Bejeweled” on an iPhone.

That still hasn’t been enough time to deal with the inevitable cultural disruption that any new technology brings and BART’s battle with the demonstrators is likely just one is a series of altercations that will have to be dealt with before the next Big New Thing arrives to cause new and unexpected troubles of its own

Still, abstract free speech questions aside, pardon me if I don’t get too upset about the horror of three hours without phone or Internet service.

People can live like that. Trust me.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.