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Court Strikes Exemption for Robocalls on Government Debts

Young caucasian man in a gray t-shirt smartphone indoors.
By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 01, 2019 6:00 AM

The federal government enacted a law decades ago to keep robocallers from annoying consumers but with one big exception -- for the government.

In a later amendment to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Congress opened the lines for autodialers to collect government debt. It was part of a bipartisan budget to collect on government-backed mortgages and students loans. In American Association of Political Consultants v. FCC, however, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said that exemption is unconstitutional.

Telephone Consumer Protection Act

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, passed in 1991, was a response to consumer complaints about marketing calls and automated, pre-recorded messages. The Federal Communications Commission then enacted rules requiring telemarketers to provide the following:

  • Name of the caller
  • Name of the entity represented
  • A telephone number or address to contact the entity

The law also prohibited telemarketers from calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., and penalized them for intentional misrepresentations. It was working, until the government added the exemption for the government in 2015. The American Association for Political Consultants complained, and the Fourth Circuit heard. Bloomberg reported the decision "marks the first time a court has held that the 2015 amendment to the nearly three-decade-old law violates the First Amendment."

Violates the First Amendment

Defending the law, the FCC argued that the exemption was based on the relationship between the debtor and the creditor. It was not about the content of the speech, the defendant said. The appeals court rejected the argument.

Contrary to the original Act, the judges said, the amendment subverts privacy interests rather than protect them. "The exemption ... cannot be said to advance the purpose of privacy protection, in that it actually authorizes a broad swath of intrusive calls," Judge Robert King wrote for the court.

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