A recent lecture in Portland about the corrupting influence of industry money on the political process came at a critical time for one small progressive advocacy group.
We are what the eminent Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig calls the 30 percent concerned about the dangers of cellphones, especially to infants and children through their teens. It was timely because LD 1013 — a bill that calls for a label directing cellphone users to precautionary language in the manual — had just passed the Maine House of Representatives and was on its way to the Senate.
As Lessig pointed out at the end of his talk, no one reads the fine print buried in the user’s manual: “Avoid direct contact with body; hold the cell phone 5/8 of an inch away from the head.” No one questions the damaging effects of radiofrequency radiation on human cells, despite many scientific studies supporting that position and despite a rising body count: increasing incidence of brain cancer on the side of the head where the cellphone is habitually held.
The text of LD 1013 is minimal by comparison with the label proposed by Rep. Andrea Boland four years ago, which read: “Warning: This device emits electromagnetic radiation [EMR], exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body.” Included with the warning was a diagram showing the massive penetration of EMR from a cellphone held to the ear of a 5 year old.
Repeatedly we have seen how corporate bullying works in Augusta: hearing rooms packed with lobbyists (here, the telecom industry) and those who benefit from their largess. In 2010, speakers testifying against the precautionary label were not above impugning the integrity of world-renowned experts brought before the Health and Human Services committee to explain the DNA damage that results from cellphone use.
After the failure of that first labeling bill and of variants introduced subsequently, the 2014 version seemed — well, unassailable. The Wireless Information Act was stripped down to a package label simply telling users where to look for the manufacturer’s own warning, and mandating that it take effect only after four other states pass similar laws.
The bill had advanced through both the House and Senate by March 18, despite charges from a few legislators and the state’s attorney general that a warning label on cellphones would violate First Amendment and other legal provisions.
Lessig’s assurance that the advisory label is indeed warranted and would indeed survive constitutional challenge, along with his pledge to provide pro bono legal counsel in the event of any lawsuit, was very likely what secured some of the last-minute key votes in the Senate.
But LD 1013 ran into trouble back in the House two days later when some legislators changed their votes.
The House Democrats who would have made a difference are Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, Assistant Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, James Dill of Old Town, Margaret Rotundo of Lewiston, W. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, Barry Hobbins of Saco, Joan Welsh of Rockport, Richard Farnsworth of Portland, Charles Priest of Brunswick, Erin Herbig of Belfast, Anne Graham of North Yarmouth and Louis Luchini of Ellsworth.
With four exceptions, House committee chairs (listed above) lined up behind Hobbins, a former employee of the wireless industry and chair of Energy, Utilities and Technology, to which the bill had been assigned. (Two other House chairs, Adam Goode and Mark Dion, were absent.)
The four House committee chairs who voted in favor — Sharon Treat of Hallowell, Michael Shaw of Standish, Walter Kumiega of Deer Isle and Charles Theriault of Madawaska — deserve our thanks for their principled action. The others should be held to account for derailing the final enactment process, usually pro forma, resulting in the bill’s failure.
It is unfortunate that Lessig’s compelling counter-argument did not persuade our lawmakers. Had he prevailed over Attorney General Janet Mills and the lobbyists, it might have signaled a knock-on effect as well: less telecom-industry payola flowing to Maine officials and candidates — the wrong kind of green for the green economy we want and need.
Notwithstanding this aborted effort, I thank Lessig for speaking out. He is welcome back here at any time to disparage the pernicious effect of corporate funding on Maine lawmakers and agency heads.
Jody Spear is an editor and writer who lives in Harborside.