Big BART Brother

The transit system's bosses know when you're sleeping, know if you're awake ... or singing Christmas carols

Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, he'll be watching you — provided you write about it on a blog. And mention BART.

The "he" in this case is Linton Johnson, chief propagandist for BART. And whenever the train system is mentioned on a blog, Google pings his e-mail account. So far that's led to him busting up unlicensed movie shoots and even nixing a Halloween BART sex party (and thank God for that — the last thing BART needs is yet another mysterious fluid to inadvertently sit in).

So, when a group of pranksters calling themselves "S.F. Shenanigans" proposed via to don we now our gay apparel and sing Christmas carols on the BART trains — in late August — naturally it came Johnson's way.

"Sounds fun!" Johnson wrote in the blog's comments section. Then he added this warning: "There's one problem though and that is you could face an embarrassing run-in with BART police. The reason is that you don't have a Free Speech Permit, which my department issues. The good news is you can easily get one, and they're free."

The bad news was that there is a seven-day waiting period, which the Shenanigans had missed. The would-be carolers were outraged. "Will I need a permit to start a conversation with my seatmate?" asked the prankster calling himself Agent Hook.

While the term does sound Orwellian, Johnson explains that "Free Speech Permits" are required to balance riders' right to speech (or to sing Christmas carols) versus riders' right to ride (and to not listen to Christmas carols). An activity that could induce a disruption would be red-flagged (although Johnson said several hundred permits are issued each year and, in nearly four years on the job, he's never seen one turned down). Permits can last as long as a month, and every singer or Scientologist you see doing his bit in a station ought to have one.

Incidentally, for those disturbed by BART's legislating free speech via a permit, consider that Muni doesn't have room for free speech at all. "We prohibit any type of First Amendment activity within the paid area of Metro," noted Muni spokesman Alan Siegel. And Caltrain flack Jonah Weinberg said caroling on a train "wouldn't be permitted in August — or December."

The Shenanigans ultimately decided to take their chances without getting a permit. The group of six carolers climbed into a waiting train last week and sang. Nobody else joined in. An elderly couple applauded, though.

After a few more runs, the group disbanded without anyone getting busted. In the meantime, a tourist couple waddled off the train. "Where do we go now?" he said, tugging his suitcase on wheels. "I don't know," she answered. "Let's sing 'Silent Night.'"

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