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BART says panhandling and busking ban is legal

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“People come to San Francisco from all over the world and they are shocked by what they see on our transit system,” says agency director

The silhouette of a man playing a trumpet with a baseball cap turned upside down for receiving tips.
Trumpet player performs at the Powell Street Station in San Francisco.
Photo by Shutterstock

BART says it can legally ban panhandling and busking on trains and within stations, bolstering Director Debora Allen’s crusade to outlaw soliciting money from passengers.

Allen, who represents parts of Contra Costa County on the BART Board of Directors, floated the panhandle ban in August.

Her measure is divisive, in part, because it would bar not only panhandling but also musicians, dancers, and other entertainers who perform for tips.

In response to the proposal, ACLU lawyer Abre’ Conner warned BART directors last summer that free speech laws protect panhandling in public spaces and that BART may expose itself to legal risks if the agency tries to infringe on those rights.

But now BART’s own legal research, set to be presented in full to the board at Thursday’s meeting, concludes that paid areas of BART operate under different legal rules than streets, sidewalks, and other traditional public areas.

By this argument, BART can, indeed, restrict some forms of expression in stations and on trains, as long as the policy doesn’t penalize people arbitrarily or illegally persecute any particular point of view.

Allen, bolstered by early news of these findings, issued a statement Monday pointing out that other major cities like New York and LA have similar policies in place on public transit.

The director also claimed that “people come to San Francisco from all over the world and they are shocked by what they see on our transit system,” according to the San Francisco Examiner. She went on to say that by banning performers and solicitation on BART, “will we see our lost ridership return.”

In January, the latest BART customer satisfaction survey found that the popularity of the region-wide system cratered, down 13 percent year over year. Allen has pushed solutions like increased security and crackdowns on fare evasion as potential solutions.

Note that areas outside of the fare gates are a public forum via BART’s legal analysis.

If Allen pushes her idea through, the big losers could be the dance crews (like the dance crew called the Turf Feinz, composed of young men from Oakland) who perform for tips on busy trains; unlike musicians, panhandlers, or puppet shows, dancers rarely, if ever, appear in unpaid station areas, and rely on the atmosphere of the moving trains as part of their act.