NYC Kicking Out the Jams

Back in October, I made the case for legalizing cell phone jammers for private business use. They would be beneficial in places where silence is an important part of the experience: concert halls, churches, museums, plays, etc. As long as there was a sign notifying customers that cell phone signals were being thwarted by the establishment, the customer can either choose to enter the place or go elsewhere.

Yesterday the New York Post reported that individuals have been acquiring jammers off the street, where they have been "selling like hotcakes". There is something enjoyable about cutting off a rambling cell phone yapper in a restaurant or on a bus. The thought does make me smile.

But it's wrong.

A cell phone user has paid for a service. Interrupting and ceasing his phone signal would be similar to walking up to a patron at a restaurant, grabbing the baked potato on his plate, and throwing it in the trash. It's akin to destroying someone's paid private property.

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This assessment is not

This assessment is not completely correct. I ride a commuter bus, and it is not clear just what is acceptable behavior on the bus and what is not. For most of the 10 years during which I have ridden this bus line, there has been an unspoken rule of "quiet". When, rarely, passengers strike up conversations, glances in their direction tell them to keep it down, and they do. Most people read or sleep on the 45-min ride. However, there has been a tendency in recent years for some bus riders to jabber away loudly on their cell phones, flouting this convention, and these obnoxious ones appear to be completely oblivious to "the glance".

Not to get all Coasean on you, but let's just say that this state of affairs is not clearly the most "efficient" outcome. To the extent that the problem does not generate enough complaints to change the policy of the bus carrier, there are "inefficiencies" wherein some riders annoy others in an unfair way.

All of this is not to say that I disagree with upholding contractual rights -- your point is well-taken. What I object to is your analogy. To modify it slightly:

Patron A chews his meal with gusto, sprinkling patron B with some meat juices. Patron B gives patron A dirty look. Patron A continues with this behavior for 20 minutes or more. Patron B, irritated, takes patron A's plate of food and dumps it in the trash.

This better demonstrates the situation. We can also imagine such events playing out in a theater, as you imply. If patron A's contractual rights were violated, were patron B's, too?

Lastly, I might point out that most contractual disputes occur for the precise reason that the contract is silent on an issue. What reasonable rights do I have as a theater, restaurant, or bus patron? Generally, these are matters that fall into the realm of custom.

For instance, it is not at all clear to me that a prominent notice of cell-phone jamming is required. Why would it be? What if the architecture of the building blocked the cell phone signals? Would a notice be required?

I agree completely with Gil.

I agree completely with Gil. The problem is the initial rights are not clearly defined: do the passengers have a right to silence, or does the chatterbox have a right to telephony?

Your points are well taken,

Your points are well taken, but I still stand by my comments.

As far as the restaurant analogy: My assumption is that the caller is not speaking at a significantly higher volume than if he were talking to his wife seated across from him. It would seem in rare cases that the level of irritant would reach the equivalent of "spraying meat juices" on another customer. And even then, you don't need a phone to do this. Someone could be yelling at his kids at the table or carrying on drunk with his buddies.

From the Post article...

One local purchaser bought a portable jammer last year, and said he likes using it at Roosevelt Field mall on Long Island.

"One time I followed this guy around for 20 minutes," he said. "I kept zapping him and zapping him, until finally he threw the phone on the floor. I couldn't stop laughing. It was so cool."

This doesn't read as someone who is silencing a loud and obnoxious customer. Rather it reads as someone using the jammer to disable phones for some fun weekend pranks. Just what we need... roving bands of jammer owners "zapping" people for entertainment at the mall (...and everywhere else, for that matter). What if the mall phone talker was feeling chest pains and was calling a doctor?

Oh, yes, one shouldn't be

Oh, yes, one shouldn't be roaming the streets jamming folks at random. That's not just.

However, it is clearly the policy of most theaters that cell phones be set to silent or turned off / not used. They say so at the beginning of the show. So, if I go into a movie and someone's cell phone rings, then in retaliation I turn on my jammer, am I violating that patron's rights? I don't think so.

The bus is an in-between case, where the contractual rights are not well-defined.

Here I agree. I'd bring a

Here I agree. I'd bring a jammer into a movie theater (where quietness is a stated policy) in a heartbeat.

I probably wasn't too clear in my original post. But I'm not necessarily saying it should be illegal for an individual to own a cell phone jammer. It's just that in most venues - restaurants, bars, malls, supermarkets, parks, etc. - using a jammer would be wrong except for extreme circumstances. It's not right to use them on someone as a "prank" or on someone speaking at a reasonable vocal level.

Yep, like Gil and Scott say,

Yep, like Gil and Scott say, this is a question of what bundle of rights we give to those walking in public. On private land, it would be an easy question, as the owner of the land could set the contractual terms. In the restaraunt or the theater, such rights could even be undefined to begin with, but covered by a clause which says "The manager on duty has the right to settle disputes..."

On public land, who knows? There are an infinite variety of possible bundles of rights we could be giving people. Cell phones generate radiation - at what level of radiation is a user violating the rights of those around them? At what level of speaking volume, in which places, can we justifiably make the user stop?

There is no bright line answer, and not much reason for the government to try to generate an efficient compromise. That's what we get for having public land :).

p.s. While my comments were

p.s. While my comments were about general morality, I should note that personally, I agree with Doug that jamming in a theater is OK and jamming in public is not.

"My assumption is that the

"My assumption is that the caller is not speaking at a significantly higher volume than if he were talking to his wife seated across from him."

Therein lies a large part of the problem. I've been in crowded restaurants where everybody is talking to their tablemates, and it just becomes non-intrusive background noise. But if one guy is talking on his phone on the other side of the room, everybody can hear him distinctly and load and clear.

Maybe part of the solution is to educate mobile users that they don't have to talk so loudly. If they didn't, most of the problem would be solved.

I sympathize with people who

I sympathize with people who are using these jammers to stop people from annoying them with their cell phones. However, like you guys said, it depends on the situation. For instance, if someone's cell phone keeps going off and they have an extremely annoying and loud ringtone I would say that a jamming would be justified. On the other hand, these pranksters who are just doing it for jokes are way out of line.

Jamming should definately be allowed on private property, especially in movie theaters.

Some researchers found

Some researchers found evidence that people talking on the phone are more intrusive than people talking face to face even when the conversations are at the same volume.

Barry's comment about background noise hinted at a possible explanation. Excerpt: "It's apparently easier to tune out the continuous drone of a complete conversation, in which two people take turns speaking, than it is to ignore a person speaking and falling silent in turns."