BART would become the first transit agency in the nation to condone a blackout of cellphone service in the face of "extraordinary" threats, under a proposal directors will consider next week.

Under the policy, BART could interrupt cellphone service only if there is "strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity" that threatens to harm passengers, employees, transit property or cause substantial disruption of train service.

Examples of extraordinary circumstances include threats that cellphones would be used in triggering explosions or in hostage-taking plots, according to the one-page proposal from BART managers.

The transit agency board will consider the policy, and its implications for freedom of speech and public safety, when it meets at 9 a.m. Oct. 27 in Oakland.

BART agreed to develop the policy following heated criticism after the agency turned off cellphone service Aug. 11 in four underground stations in San Francisco. The blackout was designed to thwart communications among demonstrators organizing a protest against a shooting by transit police.

BART officials said they were protecting the public because their information indicated the protest would disrupt service.

Critics say BART was trying to crush dissent and laying the groundwork for government repression of free speech.

The proposed policy is a good attempt at balancing free speech and public safety interests, said BART Board President Bob Franklin, of Oakland.

"I think it gives us flexibility," he said, "but it raises the bar to extraordinary circumstances."


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The policy, he noted, governs when BART can turn off its own relay equipment that provides cellphone service in underground stations where regular cellphone signals cannot reach.

In drafting the proposal, BART managers took feedback from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, a critic of the Aug. 11 blackout.

ACLU officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

BART Directors Lynette Sweet and Tom Radulovich -- both critics of the service blackout -- said they needed more time to study the proposal before commenting.

Sweet, of San Francisco, said she was disappointed BART didn't schedule an informal workshop to get public suggestions before taking a draft policy to the board.

The board held a three-hour special meeting Aug. 24 to hear from the public about the cellphone issue.

But that meeting, like other transit board meetings, was held on a weekday morning when work prevents many people from attending, Sweet said.

The cellphone blackout touched off a new round of protests that started after a BART police officer fatally shot a knife-wielding homeless man in the Civic Center station on July 3.

The BART board meets at 9 a.m. Oct. 27 at 300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland. Go to www.bart.gov for details.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff. Read the Capricious Commuter at www.ibabuzz.com/transportation/.

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The BART board will meet at 9 a.m. Oct. 27 at 300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland. Go to www.bart.gov for details.