Communications and Media

Sometimes It's Better Not To Answer the Cell Phone

July is Cell Phone Courtesy Month, but no matter what time of the year it is, it's always a good idea to know some do's and don'ts when it comes to using your cell phone courteously. And, better still, you should know when and where you shouldn't - or legally can't - use it at all.

Legally Can't?

We're not talking about the laws in some cities and states making it illegal for people to use personal cell phones and hand-held devices while doing certain jobs, like driving a bus or cab or operating a train or subway car. No, we're talking about laws making it illegal for you and me to use our phones in certain public places.

For example, in New York City, cell phones can't be used for talking in theaters, libraries, museums, galleries, motion picture theaters, concert halls, or any other building where a theatrical, musical, dance, motion picture, lecture, or similar performances or activities are taking place. There's an exception for emergency phone calls.

So, if you're watching a play, or reading in a library, and your cell phone rings and you answer it and talk, you may get more than a polite request to turn it off or to leave the premises. The police may be called and you may face a $50 fine.

Theaters, movie houses, and the like have to post signs or give similar warnings to patrons that cell phone usage is prohibited by law.

Similarly, cell phone use is restricted in many state, county, and city courthouses across the US. The rules vary a great deal depending on the court, but there are three general restrictions:

  • No cell phones at all
  • You can carry a cell phone, but it must be turned off
  • Cell phones set to "silent" or "vibrate" may be carried

Also, the rules may vary depending on where you are in the courthouse. For example, you may be able to have your cell phone on if you're at the clerk's office, but you may not be allowed to have a phone at all inside a courtroom.

Penalties may be severe, too. Your cell phone may be confiscated until you leave the building, you may be asked to leave the courtroom, or you may be held in contempt of court and pay a fine. Look for signs when you enter the courthouse for cell phone rules, and be sure to follow them. If possible, call the courthouse beforehand and ask about them.

And, since 2000, there's been a ban on using cell phones while on airplanes in-flight.

On the Fence

Even where there are no laws, businesses may restrict your cell phone use. For example:

  • Restaurants may ask their patrons not to use cell phones so as not to disturb other diners
  • Hospitals may require patients and visitors to turn-off cell phones so there's no interference with hospital equipment
  • Libraries, theaters, and museums may ask visitors not to use cell phones so other guests aren't distracted

What happens if you don't follow those rules? In most cases, you'll be asked to leave the premises if you're cell phone use is bothersome to other guests, staff, or employees. If you refuse to leave when asked, you are, technically, trespassing. If a patron becomes angry or belligerent after being asked to leave, he may be "disturbing the peace." In either event, the police may be called to escort you off the premises - and maybe to jail.

There's no guarantee you'll get your money back, either. As a matter of good business practices, a business may offer you a refund if you're asked to leave before a performance or tour ends, for example. Maybe not.


Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, the founder of National Cell Phone Courtesy Month, has a list to do's and don'ts when it comes to using your cell phone in a courteous manner while in public, such as:

  • In busy, public areas, let your calls go to voicemail, or consider turning your phone off
  • Don't talk about private or confidential information while you're in a public place, like a hallway or subway car
  • If it looks like the conversation might become heated, end the call and call back later, or take the phone call outside
  • If you can't turn your cell phone off, use its silent or vibrate setting while in business meetings, religious services, schools, restaurants, theaters, and sporting events
  • Avoid cell yell. You don't have to talk louder than your regular conversational tone when using your cell phone

Cell phones are everywhere, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But if we all follow some basic rules and respect each other's right to enjoy dinner or a play, we won't notice them as much.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • A theater refused to refund $500 I paid for tickets for me and my family and see a play. Another playgoer was on his cell phone the entire play, and management wouldn't do anything about it. Can I sue the theater?
  • The constant clicking of someone texting is almost as annoying and distracting as listening to a conversation. Why doesn't New York's law cover texting?
  • Is a parent responsible for paying her child's cell-phone related fine?
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