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In the Crossfire

Cell phones in theaters: There oughta be a law?

(CNN) -- New York City Councilman Phil Reed is tired of hearing cell phones go off in the theater and thinks the law should do something about it. He's sponsoring legislation to fine cell phone users $50 if they don't go cell-free during a performance. Is it possible to legislate common sense? Reed steps into the "Crossfire" with Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

NOVAK: Fred Smith, I was in -- a couple weeks ago -- in a jury room in the District of Columbia, doing my civic duty. All of a sudden, it sounded like it was -- we were out on the street. All these people were on their cell phones. Doesn't that kind of stuff annoy you?

SMITH: It annoys me a lot. But every new technology, Bob, has to take a while to get civilized. The telephones, when it was first introduced, were a little clumsy. Television sets, you used to walk in, if you were watching television.

What's happening is a natural way of letting that happen. To try to turn etiquette guides into statute books is -- doesn't New York City have serious problems? Can't the councilman have something real to do, to address real problems?

NOVAK: Councilman Reed, I don't know if you go to the theater much. I bet you do. I go to the theater a lot here in Washington. And before the performance, at the opera, at the Shakespeare Theater, they all say, will everybody please turn off their cell phones?

And everybody takes out their cell phone, turns it off. I've never heard one go off. Doesn't -- in a theater -- doesn't this work very nicely?

REED: Bob, you find yourself in a real minority, unfortunately, because particularly in movie theaters and other places, unfortunately people are using the cell phones. Sometimes they'll call in the middle to tell people what the action on the screen is. But I think, you know, yes, the management now has a tool. Most people, if you tell them there's a law, they will follow -- oh, OK, I guess I can't do that.

And that's fine. So -- but there are a few knuckleheads out there that probably need to have some encouragement. This morning someone said to me, you know, if I just knew that I could say to them, "This is against the law." So that's really all we're trying to do, and I think the voting public is going to be very supportive of this, because everybody is nervous, afraid these days. People spend good money. They just want to sit back and relax, and you've got some lout in front of you that just feels like he wants to perform.

BEGALA: In fact, Fred Smith, if you go to a Broadway show, it's at least, say, $100. That's a lot of money.

SMITH: A lot of money.

BEGALA: So I plunk down $100. I'm watching that show, and some jerk's cell phone goes off next to me. That's stealing from me, right? That's robbing me of part of the pleasure. It may even, in fact, distract the performer.

Laurence Fishburne was on Broadway. Somebody's cell phone went off. He actually said -- put this on the board for the folks at home -- "Will you turn off that f-ing phone, please? Turn it off!" Laurence Fishburne, who -- now, that's got to rattle the actors, it's distracting the audience. It's a form of robbery, right?

SMITH: No, it's not a form of robbery. It's a form of failure of etiquette of civilized behavior. And I would imagine -- there you go. You see. You do it yourself there.

[phone rings]

BEGALA: It's not going to bother you.


SMITH: It's not bothering me at all.

BEGALA: It's my grandmother. She watches every night. Yes, Novak is handsome, Grandma. I've got to go.

SMITH: One of the interesting things about this -- and this is worth talking -- and the councilman maybe can know this. You know, most of the time we rely on people's behavior. The concert manager has every incentive to ensure quality of life. They're going to lose sales if they allow that behavior for a while.

But you know, the FCC, regulators, the Federal Communication Commission, has prevented us from allowing technology that would block such cell calls in restaurants and theaters and so on. The irony is we pass laws that block people from using civilizing technology, and then we pass a fine to arrest them if they don't use it.

You know, this is the kind of silliness that's caught America. We've got a Constitution that guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not quality of life.

NOVAK: You know, what Fred said, to follow that up, Councilman, I worry about what's happening in New York, which is a great city.

You can't have a cigarette in a bar, if the mayor has his way. You can't go to any restaurant that has smoking. You know, I do a lot of obnoxious things, and they're going to make some rules about me next. That's what scares me, you know. Maybe they'll put a rule against three-piece suits or something like that.

REED: First of all, I want to assure everybody that we are looking at some serious issues here in the city of New York and addressing those. We had a council meeting today in the middle of August to talk about some very substantive policy issues for urban America.

But when we are also talking about the quality of life and the serious part of it, first of all, it's summer. So I think, you know, we all could sort of step back and humor ourselves a little bit. There is a serious edge to this piece of legislation about cell phones. But, you know, we are interacting with people as citizens. And I think there ought to be a dialogue about how we think we ought to best behave and put ourselves forward.

So, that's part of really what this bill is today. I'm not sure what [New York City Mayor] Mike Bloomberg is trying to accomplish. My feeling is -- while it's legal to smoke and it's legal to drink, you ought to be able to do both of those at the same time. I'm not sure you ought to be able to eat...

BEGALA: Mr. Smith gets the last word. Go ahead.

SMITH: That's when, you know, there is -- how are we going to generalize this. Are we going to go after crying babies in theaters, the coughers or, you know, that one real serious issue, the loud talker, that "Seinfeld" episode, New Yorker I should point out.

REED: Well, you take a loud, crying baby to the theater and see what happens.

BEGALA: That's going to have to be the last word.

SMITH: They don't fine you for having children in America.




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