If it’s annoying, should it be illegal?
Move over Miss Manners, politicians want to start correcting people’s rude behavior – at least when it comes to talking on a cell phone.
In New York, the City Council is considering the nation’s first law banning cell phone calls during indoor performances such as movies, concerts and Broadway plays.
Call it cell phone etiquette for the chattering class.
The measure, expected to be approved in December, would impose a $50 fine on anyone who uses a cell phone – or fails to turn off the ringer.
And this law may be coming soon to a theater near you. Last year, after New York became the first state to ban using a cell phone while driving, 31 other state legislatures considered similar regulations.
It may be only a matter of time before a wave of new cell phone regulations starts cascading across the country.
Obviously, cell phones can be annoying. But the real question raised by the New York proposal is: Should everything that’s annoying also be illegal?
Mark Twain once said: “There’s nothing quite so annoying as other people’s bad habits.”
The problem is that once politicians start making lists of “other people’s bad habits,” that list might soon be as long – and as ludicrous – as the tax code.
For example, if cell phone users are to be fined at theaters, should obnoxious people talking to the person in the seat next to them be ticketed as well? What about those who butt in line to buy tickets; take forever to order at the popcorn counter; or teenagers who smooch in the back row of the theater?
And if governments can ban cell phones at indoor theaters, why can’t they prohibit them at outdoor theaters, as well? Or in shopping malls, sports stadiums, restaurants, grocery stores and federal buildings?
The New York proposal might also have unintended consequences, as all laws do.
Consider the problem of enforcement. Imagine every movie theater equipped with phone fighters who dash down the aisle every time a ringer goes off – flashlight in hand – then demand a drivers license from the offender and issue a ticket.
With an army of cell phone cops disturbing the peace, patrons would long for the days when a cell phone ringer was their greatest annoyance.
Another consequence: Diverting officers to “phone patrol” means less manpower to fight real crimes.
Shouldn’t protecting people from murder, rape, and robbery get a higher priority than issuing cell phone citations during “Harry Potter”?
Keep in mind that there are plenty of ways to deter the inappropriate use of a cell phone short of calling the cops. A dirty look. A tap on the shoulder. If all else fails, move to another seat or ask the theater manager to intervene.
When it comes to making people behave, social disapproval works much more effectively than writing laws.
Isn’t that why Miss Manners is such a popular columnist? “Gentle reader: You are correct to be annoyed by those dreadful people who use cell phones at the theater. Here is a delightful way to embarrass such moviegoing miscreants into behaving themselves…”
Another way to implement cell phone etiquette without turning to government: Encourage the free market to address the issue.
Businesses already control customer conduct by imposing their own rules. Some prohibit eating, drinking, the use of foul language and other behaviors.
Every business already has the power to ban cell phones if they desire; they don’t need politicians to grant them permission.
If cell phone chattering is a big enough problem, consumers could encourage businesses to post their own cell phone policies.
Americans who find cell phone conversations annoying could patronize phone-free theaters, stores, and restaurants. Meanwhile, cell phone junkies would seek out phone friendly environments. That way everyone would be satisfied – everyone except pandering politicians.
Let’s hope the crusade to hire cell phone cops that started in New York end in New York, as well. Civilized people can deal with minor annoyances without government intervention.
Just ask Miss Manners.
Geoffrey Neale is a national chair of the Washington, D.C.-based Libertarian Party.
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