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Crowd control in the Facebook era

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The shooting of a homeless man by San Francisco transit police prompted reactions that have propelled Bay Area Rapid Transit into the history books. Last week, BART's spokesman, (who apparently didn't realize that his job is to facilitate communication, not curb it), suggested that transit officials shutdown the system's cellphone service to disrupt the latest round of  flash mob protests against the July shooting.

With visions of the London and Vancouver Facebook-Twitter-Blackberry-stoked riots dancing in their heads, officials probably thought they were doing the right thing to prevent protests from getting out of hand.

BART won the battle -- the protests never really materialized -- but the agency lost the war. BART earns the dubious distinction of becoming the first government agency in the country to shutdown a telecommunications network to thwart people trying to organize protests.

The transit agency's action has far-reaching legal implications that may take the US Supreme Court to sort out: defining the parameters of First Amendment rights in the fast developing world of social media-driven communication.

"It's quite clear where the line should be drawn: You cannot limit the rights of law-abiding citizens in an attempt to stop criminal activity," Fordham University professor Paul Levinson told The Christian Science Monitor. "BART's stopping of cellphone service is a distressing step away from the Bill of Rights toward a totalitarian society. This is a bigger disturbance of the peace than caused by the flash mobs."   

With the American Civil Liberties Union and the Federal Communications Commission also piling on, BART should get ready for its day in court.

Although protesters claimed solidarity with the young Egyptian protesters who succeeded in overthrowing Egypt's long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, First Amendment experts weren't willing to go that far. They argued that the authority wasn't trying to squash all protests, just ones that were going to make a mess of the evening rush hour. Home-bound commuters might say 'amen' to that, but the laudable goal of minimizing rush hour chaos might not help the agency.

Yet fear not. BART has learned it lesson. When the authority got wind of another round of protests scheduled for the evening rush on Monday, transit officials shut down four subway stations instead.

The transit agency's problems aren't over. Someone sympathetic to the protesters hacked into a BART police website on Wednesday and published officers' personal information, only days after another group of hackers breached a customer database. And another protest is planned for next Monday.

                                                                                                                                                                --GABRIELLE GURLEY 

BEACON HILL

A little sunshine? The attorney general’s office announced yesterday it has started posting decisions from hearings over protests regarding public construction contracts. The database includes all decisions dating back to 2003 as well as selected decisions dating back to 1989.

African Americans with disabilities are urging state lawmakers to focus more attention on unemployment, poverty, and other issues facing this population.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

City officials said it was sanitation, not religious repression, that caused health inspectors to close down a New Bedford barbershop where the owner performed ritualistic animal sacrifice.

An arbitrator rules the former mayor of Beverly illegally fired an electrician in 2003 and should compensate him for lost wages, as much as $500,000, the Salem News reports.

Those battlin’ members of the Swansea Recreation Commission, who have had the town counsel sitting in on meetings for the past two months to make sure they play nice, voted out the chairman and installed one of the insurgents in her place. The key issue, which was opposed by the ousted chairman, has been the push by some members to allow their kids to participate in the rec summer camp for free while other town residents pay $570.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Conrad Black says Warren Buffett’s call for increased taxes on the wealthy is “bunk” and simply Buffett playing to the cheap seats.

President Obama plans to propose a new round of tax cuts and stimulus spending in a major speech after Labor Day.

A USA Today/Gallup poll finds that  while Americans believe that the country has achieved Martin Luther King’s dream, blacks and whites disagree on how much remains to be done.

ELECTION 2012

Warren Tolman tells NECN’s Jim Braude that he will not run for the US Senate seat of Scott Brown, but says Brown is vulnerable. He met with Elizabeth Warren before making the decision.

Just because the GOP field isn’t big enough yet. . . The Weekly Standard reports Republican heavyweights are strongly urging US Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to join the race and the Standard reports that Ryan’s wife is “on board” with the idea, though “not enthusiastic.” Karl Rove uses his regular Wall Street Journal column to float the names of two possible late entrants into the White House race -- Ryan, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The American Spectator posits that while Mitt Romney may not have captured the hearts of the GOP base, he may, in the end, be more electable than Rick Perry in the general election. The Atlantic lists Perry’s crimes against pretty much everybody in the GOP.

President Obama finishes his three-day bus tour of the Midwest and gets ready to head to the Vineyard for vacation amidst sagging poll numbers. He used the trip to test-drive a new campaign strategy that echoes Bill Clinton’s in 1996 -- blame both sides of Congress for everything.

Linda McMahon is softening her image in advance of a 2012 Senate run in Connecticut.

Michele Bachmann’s aides either have been charged with in terrorism in other countries or need anger management counseling.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

After a disappointing 2010 harvest, the state’s cranberry crop, the country’s second largest, is expected to grow by about 11 percent this year because of favorable  spring and summer weather conditionss.

As the strike runs into its second week, Greater Boston takes a look at the toll the Verizon strike is having on the families of workers.

WBUR’s On Point discusses the labor fight over Boeing’s decision to move manufacturing operations from Washingtonn state to low-cost South Carolina.

Four Massachusetts banks will share an infusion of $18 million from the US Treasury, money meant to be then loaned to small businesses to spur the economy but which some may use to repay earlier federal loans they got through the TARP program.

Officials at the Department of Justice are investigating the generous credit ratings Standard & Poor’s gave to subprime-backed mortgage bonds. The inquiry began before S&P downgraded the US’s credit rating.

Three new towers will rise at the site of the Christian Science church in the Back Bay.  

Young people are fleeing the Cape in droves, citing, for starters, unaffordable housing, lack of job opportunities, and no social scene.

EDUCATION

A Methuen middle school teacher is being allowed to return to work following a suspension for appearing in a video. The Salem News reports the nature of the video is unclear, but the teacher played a cop in one film who strips to his shorts and undershirt and dances around a room.

Lynn officials say the school population will rise by 500 this year, putting the system on the edge of overcrowding, the Item reports.

TRANSPORTATION

Greater Boston  explores why Bostonians aren’t using HOV lanes.

An Outer Cape bike lane plan would narrow Route 6 to one lane in each direction from Truro to Provincetown.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry tells New Hamsphire voters global warming is an unproven, costly theory, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The federal government provides $300,000 for green job training in Lawrence, Haverhill, and Methuen, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

In an editorial, the Globe says the bankruptcy filing of Evergreen Solar, which the state has pumped millions of dollars into, doesn’t prove the folly of such state investments, but rather suggests the US as a whole has been too timid in embracing the renewable energy sector.

Small amounts of radioactive tritium originating from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant have been found on the banks of the Connecticut River.

A solar array planned for North Adams will save the town millions of dollars in energy costs for city buildings.

HEALTH CARE

A new study says most US doctors will face a malpractice suit sometime during their career.  Last summer, CommonWealth looked at a Michigan effort to minimize litigation by allowing for frank discussion between providers and patients about medical errors.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Josh Wall, named chairman of the state Parole Board in the wake of the December killing of a Woburn police officer at the hands of a paroled offender, faced tough questions yesterday from some members of the Governor’s Council who think bthe oard has become too restrictive in granting parole under his tenure.

Attorney General Martha Coakley used a visit to a Brockton house that was recently broken into to highlight the need to increase the regulations and penalties for people who steal copper piping from vacant homes and businesses.

A Waltham man is facing charges that he wooed women with romantic online personal ads but was more interested in their money than their love.

A lawyer for a codefendant in the case of reputed mobster Mark Rossetti says there were clear signs years ago that Rossetti was an FBI informant and so it’s surprising that the State Police seemed unaware of the relationship.

MEDIA

Some news startups on the web are finding that adding print editions makes economic sense , the Columbia Journalism Review reports.

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