Is There a Case for Cell Phone Jamming?

Published June 1, 2006

Pop quiz: You own a movie theater, and your ticket sales have been heading south. What should you do?
(a) Show better movies.
(b) Use real butter on the popcorn.
(c) Start jamming the audience’s cell phones, so they can’t take calls during the show.

I think most of my friends would say (d) All of the above. But it’s the third option that might come before the Federal Communications Commission, which presently prohibits the “operation of transmitters designed to jam or block wireless communications.”

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), attacked the country’s phone-wielding boors in a speech in March at ShoWest, the annual conference for cinema owners and operators. If the problem persists, he added, his group will petition the FCC to let its members jam phones during screenings.

Playing Warsaw Pact to Fithian’s NATO is CTIA The Wireless Association. (The initials used to stand for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Now they don’t stand for anything.) Joe Farren, the group’s director of public affairs, says phone-jamming is a safety hazard. “You’re risking a wireless user’s ability to make emergency calls,” he says. “To foreclose on that ability for a life-threatening situation to be reported as it happens–we just don’t think that makes any sense.”

I’m tempted to interject that you could say the same thing about someone who doesn’t own a cell phone. Shouldn’t the FCC require us all to carry a phone? It just doesn’t make sense not to have one handy! But Farren’s actually making a decent point. If your body goes into convulsions rather than withstand one more minute of Crash, the guy across the aisle might be able to call 911 even if your date left her telephone at home.

Farren also argues it’s possible to use a phone without violating theater etiquette if you set the thing on vibrate and take the call outside.

If I owned a theater I’d be inclined to follow his advice. But he hasn’t persuaded me that his advice should be the law. One of the advantages to having a lot of theaters with a lot of owners scattered all over the country is that individual outfits can experiment: You can jam phones here, hire a bouncer there, and announce in another place that cell phones will work during matinees only. It’s flexible, decentralized, a way to suss out the problems and advantages of different approaches–all the benefits that are supposed to follow from private property.

Spectrum and Property Rights

But whose property gets priority? There’s another argument against cell phone jamming, summarized (though not necessarily endorsed) by David Bennahum in Slate in 2003: “Since commercial enterprises have purchased the rights to the spectrum … jamming their signals is a kind of property theft.”

But spectrum rights aren’t the only things you can possess. If you own a theater, restaurant, funeral parlor, or other institution with an interest in quieting phones, you have some physical property; and, despite various regulatory intrusions, you’re generally understood to be entitled to restrict your guests’ behavior. The government can’t stop you from asking everyone to check their phones at the door, so why can’t you just silence the things?

Advocates of private spectrum rights have spent surprisingly little time thinking about such conflicts between physical and ethereal property. One exception is Tom W. Bell, a professor of law at Chapman University.

In “The Common Law in Cyperspace,” a 1999 article for the Michigan Law Review, Bell came down on the side of physical ownership, asking: “Suppose, for example, that on your land you used, for private wireless communications, a frequency owned by a local radio station. If your use did not interfere with your neighbors’ reception of that station, on what grounds could the supposed owner of the frequency object to your use?”

One interesting case along similar lines involves Roy Neset, a farmer in North Dakota who set up an unlicensed FM station to retransmit talk shows to himself while he rode around in his tractor. Neset’s signal didn’t interfere with anyone else’s broadcasts, but even if it had, the interference would have been limited to his own property. Is that a transgression?

I don’t think it is, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and the government shut down Neset’s operation.

Under a more libertarian system, NATO’s members might claim the right to jam a phone in the name of private property. But in a world where Washington heavily restricts what you can do with both solid and spectral possessions, the theaters will have to ask the FCC to exempt them from the rules. If they get what they want, obnoxious moviegoers will have to go back to annoying us the old-fashioned way: by talking to the people sitting next to them.

Jesse Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Reason Magazine. This article originally was published at