The new front in cellphone wars: yakking in public

Philip Reed was sitting in a movie theater in New York one evening when he heard some of his fellow moviegoers chattering away on cellphones, describing the movie action to their friends. How hard could it be, thought Mr. Reed, for these folks to "move ... out of their seats and into the lobby?"

Furious that inconsiderate patrons were sabotaging his evening's enjoyment, Reed decided to do something about it. He happens to be a New York City councilman, and today he opens a new front in the cellphone wars when he holds hearings on first-in-the-nation legislation to make places of public performance – theaters, museums, and libraries – off limits to cellphones. Offenses would be punishable by a $50 fine.

If Reed succeeds, he will be cheered by those who are tired of self-absorbed yakkers who treat the world as their phone booth, and jeered by those who believe government has better things to do than to regulate matters of etiquette.

Reed claims his bill has strong support in the 51-member city council and predicts the ban will become law as early as October.

The New York initiative addresses the issue of dialing in public as it hasn't been before. But from a restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach to a Starbucks store in metro Boston, the struggle to put cellphones in their proper place continues.

This is just the latest chapter in the nationwide debate over acceptable cellphone use. For more than a decade, numerous school districts have banned cellphones. More recently, many states and municipalities have been examining a growing body of evidence that cellphones, even hands-free sets, increase motor-vehicle accident risk. Only New York State and 16 smaller jurisdictions currently prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

Now, Reed's bill moves the debate to a whole new arena. He doesn't argue that public health and safety are at risk from cellphone use in theaters. Rather, he sees it as a public nuisance and a quality-of-life issue.

Reed, who uses a cellphone himself, doesn't expect to see cops ticketing cellphone users. The point of the legislation, he says, is "to empower people and to give them something to hang their complaints on" when they ask others to refrain from using cellphones. The legislation, he adds, will help define proper cellphone behavior.

Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an industry trade group, disagrees with Reed's approach. While acknowledging that "no one enjoys hearing a cellphone ring in a theater," Mr. Larson argues that "education not legislation" is the answer. "Cellphones have a whole range of etiquette tools, including the on-off switch, the vibrate mode, and voice mail," he says.

But etiquette tools aren't always enough. Restaurateur Ed Moose remembers the day three years ago at his popular San Francisco establishment, Moose's, when a patron at one end of the bar used a cellphone to call a friend at the other end. He decided it was time to turn the restaurant into a cellphone-free zone.

Mr. Moose had a placard designed to send a message about the kind of atmosphere he wanted to establish for his patrons – one of privacy, peace and quiet, and respect.

Still, Moose's is a place where powerful politicians mingle with movers and shakers from Silicon Valley – a place, in other words, where you'd expect to see lots of wireless connections being made. But the majority of his customers prefer the no-cell policy, and it's been a snap to enforce. "Once you say this is how you want to operate, that's enough. It's self-enforcing," he says.

Many legislators – even those who favor cellphone bans in cars – prefer this lower-key approach for restaurants and similar venues. Take state Rep. Peter Kilmartin of Rhode Island. He's pushed since 1998 to ban motorists from using cellphones in his state. (Although his legislation passed the legislature in 2001, it was vetoed by Gov. Lincoln Almond.) But when it comes to cellphone use in restaurants and other public places, "there is no public safety hazard," says Mr. Kilmartin. "I think many businesses are addressing the problem adequately by requesting that cellphones either be turned off or put on vibrate."

San Francisco, home of Moose's, is taking a similar approach. Mayor Willie Brown, a vocal proponent of cellphone civility, has a strict no-cellphone policy for meetings in his office, and the city's Board of Supervisors has banned them from their meetings as well. But there is no move in the city government to legislate cellphone etiquette, according to Mr. Brown's press secretary, P.J. Johnston.

"In San Francisco, people rely on the good judgment of patrons and businesses to impose their own policies," says Mr. Johnston. "California is still grappling with the recent ban on cigarette smoking in all indoor spaces, and even in liberal San Francisco, banning tobacco in bars and taverns was a tough pill to swallow. We don't want to get into legislating on behavioral issues."

If the question, as Moose puts it, is what kind of environment a restaurant or business is trying to create, Starbucks, the coffee-retailing giant, may be the ultimate gray zone when it comes to appropriate cellphone use.

Two Starbucks employees in the Boston area describe cellphone users who hold up lines of customers because they are too busy talking to decide on their order.

In response to an inquiry about corporate policy governing cellphone use in its stores, Starbucks referred to a recent statement: "Starbucks stores have become a Third Place – a comfortable, sociable gathering spot away from home and work, like an extension of the front porch.... It's the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores."

A company spokeswoman also touted a new initiative to wire Starbucks stores for improved functioning of personal digital assistants such as Palm Pilots, which suggests that Starbucks is putting out the welcome mat for those who want to conduct business with latte in hand.

"If the goal is to make Starbucks the office away from the office, then they expect you to use your cellphone," says Glenn Rifkin, a business journalist who has covered high tech for more than 25 years. "If the goal is to extend the community 'front porch,' it's another question."

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