Theater News

Don’t Call Us: City Council Bans Use of Cell Phones in Performance Spaces

On Wednesday, February 11, the New York City Council overrode Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a matter of importance to theatergoers and performers. The council voted 38-5, with two abstentions, to ban the use of cell phones and beepers in any “place of public performance,” such as indoor theaters (whether they offer live performances or movies), libraries, museums, galleries, and concert halls.

The law is the first in the nation to require audience members to silence their phones at performances or face fines of $50 per infraction. It also requires theater owners to post signs notifying patrons that they are forbidden to use a cell phone, or even to allow one to audibly ring, during a performance at any of these venues.

Council member Philip Reed of East Harlem introduced the proposal last year, and it gained overwhelming support from theater professionals. Representatives of Actors’ Equity, the League of American Theatres and Producers, and the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers testified in favor of the bill at City Hall hearings. Its few opponents included the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (an international organization for wireless service providers and manufacturers) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (an outfit best known for battling environmental laws).

The council passed the measure by a 40-9 vote in December, but Bloomberg vetoed it the following month, calling it unenforceable. Reed vowed at the time to bring it up for an override vote and predicted that it would pass easily. Some City Hall observers — including Bloomberg’s spokesperson, Edward Skyler — expressed surprise that the vote occurred on Wednesday, in the midst of an Orange Alert for terrorism and heightened concerns about a possible war. “Considering the challenges facing the city, we think our law enforcement officers should spend their time keeping New Yorkers safe instead of raiding movie theaters,” Skyler said after the council voted to override the mayor’s veto.

According to Reed, however, current tensions make the bill more necessary than ever. “People in this city find themselves stressed between high alerts and whether or not they’ve got a job and all that,” he said. “At least if you go to the theater and just want an hour and a half where you can forget this, I don’t think we should be annoyed with someone else’s cell phone.”