Enforcing Cell Phone Etiquette

Rinng! Rinng! It’s shopping period, and the cell phones are back, interrupting lectures, concerts and dinners with their incessant beeps, ditties and hums. The rudeness and negligence of cell phone users is often startling, and the problem of the interrupting “Hava Nagila” is only getting worse.

Instead of sheepishly ignoring such disruptions, those of us who value our freedom from the garish electronic tones of “Für Elise” should push for cell phone fines. Think of them as an “annoyance tax” that reflects the cost of time lost while cell-phone users rifle through their bags to switch off offending phones. If your cell phone rings in class, you will pay $20. If it goes off in the dining hall, $10.

According to the New York Times, over 70 percent of full-time college students own cell phones, and if the number of interruptions in classes is an indication, Harvard has its fair share. But there are also the forgotten 30 percent of us who do not own cell phones-—many of us by choice. We should be the first to push for the new fines. By persuading people to turn off their cell phones, we will allow misguided friends to rediscover the joy of looking around while walking, reading quietly on the bus and talking with people they meet in person, not just those on the other end of the line. No more embarrassing rings during section, no more of those deer-in-the-headlights, talking-on-the-phone looks in public.

Taxing cell phone abuse will even help re-establish personal contact between people and prevent annoying friends from wasting your time since fines would give people an excuse to turn off their phones. Imagine telling that annoying ex, “Oh, I’m sorry you couldn’t reach me, I just didn’t want to be fined today.”

But there will always be someone who forgot to switch a cell phone off before class. These negligent students will be a particularly good revenue source to support the program. The money collected from fines can be used to set up and enforce the new cell phone rules, and perhaps even give incentives in the form of rewards to informants who spot illicit cell phone use in the hallways of Lamont.


Cell phones are so new that there are few rules of etiquette surrounding their use. By introducing penalties for rude behavior, fines are a good first step toward enforcing the rules of decency on the most serious interrupters.

—Jonathan H. Esensten is an executive editor.