Berkeley’s Cell-Phone Warning Highlights the Limits of the ‘Right to Know’

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UK - London - Phone user and Samsung S6 shop ad
Photo: Richard Baker/Corbis

There’s a widespread expectation that people have the right to certain types of information. If a batch of chicken is recalled because of a salmonella outbreak, consumers have a right to know so they don’t buy that chicken on the off chance it finds its way into a supermarket. If a vehicle has a potentially disastrous defect, drivers have the right to know so they don’t drive off a bridge. This idea is pushed to its limits — and maybe beyond them — by the law the Berkeley, California, city council passed unanimously in May, which requires “cellphone stores to warn customers that the products could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation,” as the New York Times puts it.

It’s called the right-to-know ordinance, which sets up the framing nicely: Consumers have a right to know possible health effects caused the gadget they carry around in their pocket and/or pressed up against their head all day. Under the law, notes the Times, “retailers are supposed to notify customers … that ‘you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure’ to radio frequency radiation by carrying a cellphone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra. ‘The potential risk,’ the warning continues, ‘is greater for children.’”

Only the science is pretty clear on this: There’s just no solid evidence of a link between cancer and the levels of radiation emitted by cell phones — a fact that even supporters of the law acknowledge, according to the Times.

The law hasn’t gone into effect yet because a cell-phone trade group filed a First Amendment lawsuit “charging that retailers cannot be forced to say something that is ‘false’” that’ll go to court next month. Whatever the outcome, this has echoes of the GMO-labeling debate and poses the same question: What does it mean to say consumers have a right to hear information that appears to be false, and to impose the communication of that information as a result?

I’ll repeat the same point I made yesterday: It’s hard to make a case for a law like this without also effectively ceding the floor to anti-vaxxers or climate-change-deniers or creationists who want their perceived “controversies” enshrined into the law.