MBTA Transit Police threaten to arrest me for distributing flyers to reporters at Google Transit press conference

By | July 30, 2009

As planned, I went to South Station about a half hour before the press conference scheduled to announce that Boston (finally!) had been added to Google Transit.  Upon arrival, I started talking to reporters and handing out flyers.

I was quickly confronted by Daniel Dombak, a Marketing Director for Equity Office (which manages South Station), and informed that I was on private property and couldn’t distribute flyers without a permit.

“Are you going to arrest me and drag me out of the station for handing out flyers to reporters?” I asked him.

“No, of course we’re not going to drag you out of the building,” he responded, but in fact that’s exactly what he intended to do.

A few minutes later, a Transit Police officer approached me and informed me that I was not allowed to distribute written materials on MBTA property without a permit.  We went back and forth for several rounds with me trying to get her to explain in plain English what would happen if I continued to distribute flyers.  She finally claimed that yes, if I continued to distribute the flyers after being asked to stop, I would be arrested.  The police officer, against whom I have no complaint because she was just doing her job, informed me that of course I could talk to reporters as much as I wanted; I just couldn’t hand them pieces of paper.

This entire exchange was witnessed by Wade Roush, Chief Correspondent for Xconomy Boston.  He subsequently interviewed me about this incident and about the problem I was attempting to bring to light. [UPDATE: Roush’s Xconomy article which discusses what happened to me: MBTA Data Helps [sic] Google Users Get Around Boston]

I would have enjoyed getting arrested, because that would definitely have given some much needed publicity to the issue I’m trying to get fixed, but I don’t think my boss or my family would have appreciated it all that much, so I decided not to push the issue.

Nevertheless, the trip was not a complete waste.  I managed to get flyers into the hands of a few reporters, and I was interviewed by one of them.  Furthermore, something even better happened.  Boston Transportation Commissioner Thomas Tinlin was there representing Mayor Menino, and I was able to talk with him briefly after the press conference.  He and I have corresponded in the past, so I used that to break the ice before asking what he recommended I do to get someone to fix the incorrect route information I’d been complaining about for over six years.  He told me to send my concerns to him by email and he would make sure they made it directly to Dan Grabauskas.  So I’ll give that a try and see what happens.

One final thing I’ll mention is that I was terribly amused by the number of people who praised Dan Grabauskas for so quickly taking advantage of new technology by getting the MBTA onto Google Transit.  “Quickly” indeed.  Apparently none of these people are aware that there are 70 transit agencies in 10 countries managed to find their way into Google Transit before Grabauskas figured it out.

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13 thoughts on “MBTA Transit Police threaten to arrest me for distributing flyers to reporters at Google Transit press conference

  1. Bob Lothrope

    (Apologies for the year+ delay in following up.)

    ” ‘Why don’t you instead focus your efforts on getting in touch with the T’s planning department, who are the people who can actually fix the mistake?’

    If you had bothered to read the relevant blog postings before ignorantly commenting, you would know that I have been trying to get the T to fix these errors for over six years; my stunt at South Station was a last-ditch effort to shake loose an appropriate response from the T.”

    I did read them, and there’s no reason to insult me.

    My point was that while you’ve certainly spent plenty of time trying to get these problems fixed, it would be more effective to keep trying to reach the right people at the T (the Planning Department), than to try to give flyers to reporters at a press conference.

    (And in fact, flyering didn’t work, since they haven’t fixed it yet as far as I can tell.)

    You could also try writing to the Starts & Stops column at the Globe.

    I know several people who have successfully reached the right people at the T to address various issues. One has even had several conversations with the General Manager.

    Reply
  2. Dave

    There are obvious errors on the Haverhill Commuter Rail line.
    Mishawum station is still shown, where Anderson has been up for years.
    And the old Lawrence station location is shown incorrectly, instead of the new McGovern center.

    Reply
  3. jik Post author

    Actually Greg, believe it or not, the T is private property.

    No, it’s not, even if the T wants to pretend that it is because it makes their lives easier.

    Granted, the MBTA is (or at least was, until recently — see below) a “quasi-public agency,” which makes the status of its property somewhat murky. But if it were completely private property, then the case Greg mentioned above would never have made it to court.

    The MBTA is heavily subsidized by the state and federal government, which means that the MBTA can’t infringe on people’s free-speech rights regardless of whether its property is “private.”

    Having said all of that, now that the MBTA is going to be merged into the DOT, which is fully under the control of the government and not a quasi-public agency, there is no longer any ambiguity in the status of T property — it is fully public property, and the government is fully prohibited from preventing people from exercising reasonable free speech there.

    As for the Why wouldn’t the guy just stand out front of the station? No one would have bothered him there.

    You’re a pretty dim bulb, aren’t you? Either that, or you don’t bother to read things before you comment on them. But hey, I suppose that’s not too surprising, considering that you’re an MBTA employee (here’s a bit of advice for you: if you’re going to post a comment defending your employer without mentioning who you work for, it’s not a good idea to do it from an IP address owned by your employer).

    As I explained quite clearly, I was handing out flyers to the journalists covering the press conference. They were assembled at the press conference, not “out front of the station,” and there’s no way I would have been able to identify which people entering or leaving the station before or after the press conference were journalists. Most of them weren’t carrying cameras and had no badges or other identifying materials. Not to mention that there are at least four different ways to enter and leave the station.

    Rather than wasting your time defending your employer’s offensive policies, maybe you ought to spend it trying to get someone to fix the Trip Planner data.

    Reply
  4. M

    Actually Greg, believe it or not, the T is private property. As for the Why wouldn’t the guy just stand out front of the station? No one would have bothered him there.

    Reply
  5. jik Post author

    It seems you found one error in the trip planner’s bus stop data for one bus route, 400 Centre Street on the outbound 554.

    It’s actually a larger error than that. As far as I can tell, it is wrong for all the 55x buses, and it is more likely that there are other errors like this than that these few are the only ones. Clearly, if these errors have persisted for over six years, no one has made any serious effort to ensure that the data is correct.

    is it really a big enough deal to deserve the attention of all the reporters at a press conference?

    It is a big deal that the T, while claiming to be on the cutting edge (which is itself a ludicrous claim, given that they’re the last major transit system in the US to make it into Google Maps), has errors in its data which prevent people from getting where they’re trying to go, which have been in the data for many years, which the T knows about, and which the T has made no effort to fix.

    Why don’t you instead focus your efforts on getting in touch with the T’s planning department, who are the people who can actually fix the mistake?

    If you had bothered to read the relevant blog postings before ignorantly commenting, you would know that I have been trying to get the T to fix these errors for over six years; my stunt at South Station was a last-ditch effort to shake loose an appropriate response from the T.

    In all of the time I’ve tried to get this problem fixed, I have never had the privilege of being allowed to speak to someone who might actually be able to fix the problem, and none of the people to whom I have spoken at the T have stepped up and taken responsibility for ensuring that it gets fixed.

    By the way, what did the sign at the bus stop say?

    If I recall correctly (I’ll try to check the next time I’m there to make sure), the signs at the bus stop also claim that the bus stops there when it doesn’t. In any case, one way or the other, these signs can’t be relied upon, because there are unfortunately many stops throughout the system with either missing or incorrect signage.

    And did you also take a look at the pdf/paper schedule?

    Did you, before (again) commenting ignorantly?

    Neither the published map nor the published schedule are sufficiently detailed to answer the question one way or the other whether the outbound bus stops at 400 Centre St. The only data published by the T which actually shows every single stop is the Trip Planner / Google Maps data.

    Reply
  6. Bob Lothrope

    It seems you found one error in the trip planner’s bus stop data for one bus route, 400 Centre Street on the outbound 554. (I also see that an analogous mistake exists for the inbound 554, where the trip planner says it stops at Washington and Bacon, which is actually on the outbound side of the circle.)

    That’s certainly a problem for people who try to use that stop, but is it really a big enough deal to deserve the attention of all the reporters at a press conference?

    Why don’t you instead focus your efforts on getting in touch with the T’s planning department, who are the people who can actually fix the mistake?

    By the way, what did the sign at the bus stop say? And did you also take a look at the pdf/paper schedule?

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Google Transit Maps for Boston Unveiled | Transit Wisdom

  8. jik Post author

    According to these rules are you allowed to exchange business cards on a T platform?

    That’s a good question, one which I’d wondered myself.

    It is not obvious to me how one could write a policy that distinguishes between handing out political literature to a bunch of people one has just met at a T station and handing out business cards to a bunch of people one has just met and struck up a conversation with.

    I suspect that under the existing policy, both are technically prohibited. I also suspect that the Transit Police would not enforce the policy on the latter case, and that means selective enforcement, and that means unconstitutionality.

    But I say all this without having read the policy, so for all I know they’ve figured out how to get around that.

    Reply
  9. Allen Smith

    They seem like they were a little overly aggressive if all you were doing was handing info to a few reporters and not soliciting the general public. According to these rules are you allowed to exchange business cards on a T platform?

    Reply
  10. Greg

    According to the claims in this case you could have called them up and gotten authorization on the spot. But as I said, you might not have been granted authorization for the same location as the press conference.

    Reply
  11. Greg

    Ah, in fact the MBTA has been to court already over their rules. The general ban on leafleting was overruled but they were allowed to require that you get prior authorization. You don’t have to tell them the content when you request authorization. Though you might have been denied based on the presence of the press conference since the rule purports to be avoiding overcrowding anyways.

    http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/984/984.F2d.1319.92-1277.html

    Reply
  12. jik Post author

    The government is allowed to place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on free speech. Clearly, the flyers I was distributing were political speech, and therefore distributing them is protected by the First Amendment. The question, then, is whether requiring that I get a permit before doing so is an unreasonable restriction.

    I would argue that it is. I was not being disruptive or harassing anyone. Furthermore, since the press conference was just announced yesterday, I didn’t find out about it until I read the newspaper this morning, so there clearly was not enough time for me to apply for and receive a permit to distribute flyers at the conference.

    However, I’m not in a position to offer myself up as a test case to challenge this practice. With a family to support and a full-time support, I can’t really afford to get arrested just to stage a Constitutional challenge against the MBTA.

    Reply
  13. Greg

    Fww, while I’m no lawyer I’m fairly convinced he’s probably wrong. Firstly the South Station buildings are owned by the MBTA which is a government agency and not “private property”.

    Consider this case where the Krishna society appealed a case where they were banned from soliciting in New York airports. They actually lost this appeal but that was about the solicitation. Even after ruling that airports are not public fora the courts had held that a ban on distributing fliers was still an unreasonable restriction.

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/search/display.html?terms=transit%20and%20printed&url=/supct/html/91-155.ZO.html

    Reply

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