San Francisco’s plan to require wireless vendors to display posters about the possible health impacts of cellphone usage could be stalled for months if a federal judge sides today with a trade group suing The City.
The trade group CTIA, which represents major wireless carriers, is arguing that only federal authorities have standing to regulate cellphones and San Francisco’s unique law is a violation of First Amendment rights because the posters would essentially force companies to endorse material they believe is misleading.
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CTIA is seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the new disclosure rules from taking effect on Tuesday until a final decision is made on the group’s lawsuit challenging the policy.
John Walls, a CTIA spokesman, said he hopes U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup will decide to “put the brakes” on the posters.
“We would rather there be a decision on whether this activity itself is necessary before the printing and posting those materials,” Walls said, adding that the law is an attempt by The City to “usurp the authority” of federal regulators and the posters are “false and alarming to consumers.”
An earlier version of the law, pushed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2010, mandated cellphone shops list the exact amount of radiation emitted by each cellphone. After CTIA filed a lawsuit against The City over the original law, the Board of Supervisors amended it in July so it now requires only the posters, plus a fact sheet telling users how to diminish their exposure.
The posters say in display type, “Studies continue to assess potential health effects of mobile phone use,” and represent radiation with red and yellow lines around the head and pelvic area of a human figure. The World Health Organization released findings in May that called cellphones “potentially carcinogenic to humans,” but the lawsuit argues that the Federal Communications Commission already requires companies to limit radio frequency energy to 2 percent of the base level known to cause any biological impact.
The First Amendment argument in CTIA’s lawsuit raised the ire of City Attorney Dennis Herrera earlier this month, when he issued a statement calling that assertion a trivialization of free-expression rights.
“Freedom of speech is about encouraging the exchange of ideas, not about keeping people in the dark about vital health information,” Herrera said.
The City Attorney’s Office argues that the posters don’t include any information that isn’t already noted in the fine print of cellphone manuals, and that the posters merely “provide consumers with accurate information that allows them to make informed decisions about how to use their cellphones.”
Advocates of health-related regulations on mobile phones say a ruling in favor of The City could clear the way for other cities and states to mandate similar warnings.
Renee Sharp, director of the California office of the Environmental Working Group, which supports San Francisco’s efforts, said the posters shouldn’t be taken as a warning. Instead, they should be considered “educational information” that isn’t meant to dissuade cellphone use.
“It’s not saying ‘You must do this,’” Sharp said, adding that using headsets and keeping phones away from the body can reduce radiation exposure. “It’s just saying, ‘Look at how you use your phone and when it needs to be on.’”
July 2010: First “Cell Phone Right-to-Know” ordinance mandated cellphone shops list the exact amount of radiation emitted by each cellphone approved; lawsuit filed against The City by trade group CTIA days later argued that only federal authorities can regulate cellphones
January 2011: CTIA’s lawsuit modified to include argument that the ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of cellphone companies
July 2011: San Francisco supervisors approved an amendment limiting the law to requiring cellphone vendors to display informational posters and a fact sheet telling users how to reduce exposure
October 2011: Lawsuit filed again by CTIA to target the amended law
Source: San Francisco City Attorney’s Office