Bright idea, poor timing? Or just bad idea?

Pundits are panning leaders of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system for the actions they took to stifle potential station protests this past Thursday. According to officials, underground cellular service at select BART stations was turned off from around 4 pm to 7 pm that day in an attempt to prevent protest organizers from communicating and organizing via mobile devices.

Although critics contend that the move evokes thoughts of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, when government-mandated cellular disruptions were used to try and prevent Egyptian protesters from organizing in a similar fashion this past January, BART officials maintain that the shutdown was intended to keep its service running and subway riders safe.

"A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators," says a statement on BART's official site.

According to officials, BART's method for blocking cell phone signals didn't involve any kind of signal jamming - which could run afoul of the Communications Act of 1934, a measure that expressly forbids "maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act..."

An initial statement by BART made it seem as if the organization had contacted cellular service providers and asked them to flip their respective switches, but further interviews with BART officials indicated that the organization itself has the power to, and did, turn off the wireless signals it provides for transit riders. The official decision to cut service was a two-pronged effort by BART police and Sherwood Wakeman, BART's interim general manager.

"Ultimately, I'm the one that implemented it," said BART deputy police chief Benson H. Fairow in an interview with SF Appeal. "It was certainly run through channels. A lot of thought went into this."

Nevertheless, BART critics contend that the act of shutting down cellular service in an effort to prevent protests - the first time BART has done so in its history, notes a spokesman - was wrong on its face.

"All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it's anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly," wrote Michael Risher, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, in a blog post. "Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?"

As of right now, it appears that BART riders will have to suffer that, and more. Although BART said in its statement that it, "accommodates expressive activities that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution," BART also used its statement on the cellular shutdown to clarify the exact kinds of speech that is allowed within stations.

"No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms," reads BART's statement.

BART protests in July shut down multiple stations for public use, forcing numerous rush-hour subway riders to find alternate methods - or stations - for going about their Bay Area trips.