Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Devra Davis from the Environmental Health Trust at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Lance Knobel
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Devra Davis from the Environmental Health Trust at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Lance Knobel

Berkeley City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed the first reading of a “Right to Know” ordinance to require cellphone retailers in Berkeley to provide consumers with information that warns them to keep a minimum safe distance between their bodies and their phones.

“The world is watching what you do tonight,” said Devra Davis, president of the Environmental Health Trust. “And you have the opportunity to do the right thing.”

The ordinance would require cellphone retailers to provide consumers with every sale or lease of a phone with a notice on radio frequency (RF) radiation exposure guidelines, warning that carrying the phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra could result in exceeding federal guidelines. City staff had assistance from Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard, and Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School, in drafting the ordinance. Lessig has offered to defend the city pro bono if the law is challenged, as expected, by cellphone manufacturers. 

San Francisco passed a so-called “Right to Know” ordinance in 2010, but a lengthy legal battle led its Board of Supervisors to withdraw the law in 2013, after a federal appeals court blocked implementation on First Amendment grounds.

“This ordinance is fundamentally different from what San Francisco passed,” Lessig told the City Council. “The San Francisco ordinance was about getting people to use their cellphone less.”

The drafted Berkeley ordinance, Lessig said, purely provided information. Questioned by Mayor Tom Bates, Lessig admitted that he did not follow the guidelines for carrying his phone.

“How I carry it is how people should not carry it,” Lessig said. “I carry it in my back pocket.”

The only speaker at the meeting against the ordinance was Gerald Keegan, from CTIA — The Wireless Association.

“All of the agencies that have looked at this issue have determined that there are no harmful effects,” Keegan said, which elicited a chorus of boos and hisses from a crowded council chamber. “This proposal would irresponsibly alarm consumers.”

Numerous speakers provided public comment in support of the ordinance, many talking about what they said were health risks from RF radiation. Mayor Bates hurried many speakers on, pointing out that the council had requested the draft ordinance.

“As soon as we get through this discussion, we can vote,” he said.

Cellphone manufacturers are currently required to provide information on FCC testing and guidelines, but proponents of the ordinance argue that the information is hidden in manual small prints or buried in a series of menus on phones.

“The singular, only thing on which we’re legislating here today is on the consumer right to know,” said Councilman Kriss Worthington. “We’re not telling the consumers what to do.”

Councilman Max Anderson, who initiated the council’s efforts on the ordinance four years ago, also stressed that the ordinance is not about scientific issues, but about information.

“The issue before us tonight is not the science itself,” he said. “The real issue before us tonight is whether or not citizens have the right to information which they can rely on to make decisions. You see a hunger for this information.”

The notice that the ordinance would require reads:

“To assure safety, the Federal Government requires that cell phones meet radio frequency (RF) exposure guidelines. If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation. This potential risk is greater for children. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.”

It requires that the notice is provided on paper not less than 5-by-8 inches, in at least 18-point type. If the notice is “prominently displayed” at a point of sale, it must be on a poster not less than 8-1/2-by-11 inches in at least 28-point type.

Op-ed: Residents want, deserve cellphone ‘right to know’ (05.05.15)
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Op-ed: Support Berkeley’s important cellphone safety bill (10.17.14)
The lowdown: Berkeley council on cellphone safety stickers, e-cigarettes, parking, more (09.08.14)
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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...