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Equity May Back Cell-Phone Ban

Controversial legislation outlawing the use of cell phones in "places of public performance" is gaining support from key industry figures, including those at Actors' Equity. On Fri., Oct. 11, the union announced it may "consider supporting legislation banning cell phone use" and is "looking into enforcement issues" as well.

Introduced by New York City Councilman Philip Reed of Harlem, the legislation would make it a punishable offense to use a cell phone "any place…where members of the public assemble to witness cultural, recreational, or educational activities." This would include live theatres, libraries, museums, galleries, movie theatres, and concert halls.

Reed also heads up the Consumer Affairs Committee of the council, which held a Tues., Sept 24 hearing on the bill, attended by, among others, Carol Waaser, eastern regional director for Actors' Equity, who testified in favor of the bill. On Mon., Oct. 21 at 1 pm at City Hall, the committee will hold another public hearing on the legislation. (For security reasons, a strict sign-in and screening procedure is in effect, with photo ID required.) For more information, call (212) 788-7100.

At the Sept. 24 hearing, Waaser was joined by a triumvirate of industry colleagues all voicing support for the law, including Barbara Janowitz, of the League of American Theatres and Producers; Robert Sunshine, of the National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents cinema operators; and George Elmer, a well-known Broadway house manager and member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM). Speaking against the legislation were representatives of The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that acts as "the voice of the wireless industry," and representatives of the Mayor's office.

Wherefore Enforcement?

Since Reed first announced his proposed cell phone-ban last August, several related issues have continued to dog the idea: Who will be invested with the power to enforce the law; how will the law be enforced; and what kind of punishment will be just and fitting for those who break the law. The Sept. 24 testimony made it clear that answers to those questions is proving elusive.

"I, along with other witnesses, spoke in favor of the ban," said Waaser, after her testimony, "but cautioned that enforcement would be difficult and could cause more of a disturbance that the original offense." Waaser did not address, also, whether a proposed $50 fine would serve as a deterrent.

Still, Janowitz said, "The ringing of cell phones has ruined too many theatrical performances for too many people, audiences and performers alike. It is time to work together to put an end to it." And Elmer, in his testimony, described how an "occasional nuisance" affecting performances "perhaps once or twice a week" has evolved into a problem cropping up "once or twice an act." He also described how "actors are stopping performances, glaring at the offender, and saying things like 'When you're done, we'll resume.'"

Charles Sturcken, special counsel to the city's Department of Environmental Protection, which would play a role in any enforcement of the ban, suggested the law, while well intentioned, was deeply flawed. "For a violation to be issued," he said, a "DEP inspector…must actually witness the violation," an unlikely circumstance in a darkened theatre.

In an August interview with Back Stage following the announcement of his proposed legislation, Councilman Reed suggested the enforcement question may actually be less important that simply codifying the concept that one's cell phone must be turned off when in places of public assembly.

"A lot of people—most people, a majority of people—want to obey the law," he said. "It's like the penal code, the health code—there's no smoking in a restaurant, people don't do it. But right now, turning off a cell phone is a request; it's not a law. If it's helpful to the management of the theatre, that's a good thing—it's empowering to be able to say 'you're violating the law, it's against the law to talk on the phone, turn it off.' And if you have somebody who's going to continue to talk and talk and talk, the management can insist they stop. They can say, 'I'm going to get a police officer.'"

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