Jerry Kopel

It was totally unexpected. Racing towards us down a sloping street in a Paris residential neighborhood was a 12 to 13 year old boy on a skateboard who was talking and laughing on a cellphone. A skilled skateboarder, he didn't hit me or my wife, but we both had the same question: Another import from the United States?

This was the first Parisian child, but not by any means the last to pass us on the streets, holding a cellphone to one ear while chatting away. Is this the new French cool? When we bought a Sunday Times from London, we found the answer.

One (but not the only) of the culprits is Vodafone, England's largest wireless firm, which recently swallowed AirTouch and is now finishing a deal with Bell Atlantic. Vodafone AirTouch is licensed in 25 western states including Colorado. The agreement with Bell Atlantic would combine Bell and Vodafone wireless networks into a new firm, 55-45 split, with Bell in charge.

According to the Times while "one in three (British) adults now has a mobile phone, the percentage of under-18s that use them has risen from 15 percent last year to 35 percent today, and the figure is expected to reach at least 70 percent by 2002."

"The boom has been generated in recent months by the success of pre-paid phones financed by vouchers rather than contracts that require parents' approval."

The corporations pushing the cellphones woo children with removable colored covers that can be matched to clothes and "dialed icons that appear on the phone display as teddy bears, broken hearts and smiley faces."

Remember when you were in middle school? Some girl or boy sitting on your left wrote notes to some other boy or girl sitting on your right. You had to pass the folded note on and woe be unto you if you opened the note. You would be ostracized. Well, the cellphones for children include text messages. "This allows children in classrooms to send the equivalent of a rude note..."

According to a research study furnished to the Times, most of the heavy users among children (more than two hours per day) are girls aged 13-16. "As we have seen with other teenage consumer-obsessive behavior patterns, there is a real possibility that some young girls will resort to petty theft (to pay the bill). Children are spending pocket and lunch money on pre-paid vouchers."

In Colorado, concern about cellphones has centered on car drivers with no mention of direct corporation-child contacts. Children have been walking around with boom boxes for years, so cellphones might not be much different as far as safety. But I haven't heard of phone companies making contracts with children for permanent phones, so why can they do it for cellphones?

Contracts made by unemancipated children in Colorado are "voidable" (CRS 13-22-101) which means the contract can be nullified by the minor. The law in England is similar, which is why the mobile phone companies are using the approach of pre-paid vouchers.

If a child goes to a movie and spends $5 on a pail of popcorn, the child can't eat the popcorn and then demand the money back. Money spent by children on pre-paid vouchers may not be reclaimable under present Colorado law, unless a statute is passed allowing all such moneys to be recovered.

It's certainly legitimate for children to use cellphones under contracts made by companies with parents. But for phone companies to entice children to use cellphones with pre-paid vouchers is irresponsible and outrageous.

* * *

Thrice billionaire Donald L. Sturm, who is tied for seventy-fourth richest individual in the country, recently received an alumni award from the University of Denver College Of Law, and it was well deserved. He has been an outstanding philanthropist without the egotistical displays so evident among many with lesser fortunes and smaller donations.

Until his purchase of two Colorado sport teams, Sturm has managed to maintain privacy and near anonymity despite his billions. One example: On May 1, 1998, DU College of Law held a reunion of the class of 1957/58.

Staying in the shadows? Someone on the present faculty brought over this tall gentleman and said "Jerry, allow me to present Donald Sturm." I didn't then, and still don't, have any recollection of Donald Sturm as a law school classmate. And I certainly didn't know anything more about him in 1998. "Hello Don," I said, "nice to see you", and moved on to my buddies.

DU Law School in the 1950's was on the first floor of what had been Mapelli's Meat Market in downtown Denver. In booklets intended to entice students to the law school, the picture was always shot looking down from a helicopter. Across the street was Sullivan's Bar and Grill where students congregated when not in class.

Sturm's modesty was most revealing in the questionnaire sent by the law school which we filled out (some of us filling an entire page) and which was then presented to us in booklet form at the reunion.

I won't list the Sturm home address and phone number given, because it is not in the phone book and I respect his desire for privacy. But he only provided two pieces of additional information: "Employment Since Graduation": 1969-63, Internal Revenue Service; 1963-91, Peter Kiewit Son's; 1991 to present, Investor, Denver. "Interesting hobbies and activities": Too numerous to mention.

Sixty-seven law school students took the state bar exam in December of 1957 which was given in the Colorado House of Representatives. Fifty of us passed. Seven of the fifty (including Sturm and myself) had not yet graduated law school and wouldn't until several months later. The Rocky Mountain News published the names of the fifty successful examinees, beginning with remarks about Leo Zuckerman and me (as former News journalists) and then starting a list of names with Donald L. Sturm in the last paragraph.

What's that quote about "The last shall be first"?

Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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