Have you ever heard anyone wish to receive robocalls?
We’re talking about those unsolicited phone calls that always seem to arrive at dinnertime. The call interrupts our lives and there’s not even a human being on the line, just a recording.
Montana outlawed most robocalls back in 1991. But last year a Michigan political consulting company challenged that law, claiming it unconstitutionally prohibited political speech. In a 32-page ruling filed Friday in Helena, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Charles Lovell upheld Montana’s law.
His ruling is a victory for the right of privacy and to be protected from having unwanted automated phone calls.
Lovell’s ruling also clearly demonstrates that personal peace and privacy don’t necessarily conflict with freedom of political speech.
For Lovell, “the saving grace” in Montana law is that it allows robocalls so long as a real live operator first gets the call recipient's permission. In other words, if the Michigan firm paid human beings to make political calls and to ask if the recipients want to hear the recorded message, the call would be legal under Montana law – if the recipient said yes.
Lovell wrote: “Statutory restrictions on robocalls are intended to preserve, not diminish, the private property owner’s control over his or her property and personal choices regarding receipt of communications, both of which are integral elements of residential privacy.
“Political speech is precious under the First Amendment. The prohibition here of the promotion of a political campaign must meet a high bar to survive this challenge. It does so on its face by exempting robocall use if the permission of the called party is obtained by a live operator before the recorded message is delivered."
Attorney General Tim Fox and his staff deserve congratulations for protecting our privacy. “This ruling upholds the will of the people, and I’m proud of my team for successfully defending the law,” Fox said in a news release Monday.
This federal court decision reminds us that Montana law prohibits not just political robocalls, but a broader range of unsolicited automated phone calls. The statute provides:
(1) A person may not use an automated telephone system, device, or facsimile machine for the selection and dialing of telephone numbers and playing of recorded messages if a message is completed to the dialed number for the purpose of:
(a) offering goods or services for sale;
(b) conveying information on goods or services in soliciting sales or purchases;
(c) soliciting information;
(d) gathering data or statistics; or
(e) promoting a political campaign or any use related to a political campaign.
(2) This section does not prohibit the use of an automated telephone system, device, or facsimile machine described under subsection (1) for purposes of informing purchasers of the receipt, availability for delivery, delay in delivery, or other pertinent information on the status of any purchased goods or services, of responding to an inquiry initiated by any person, or of providing any other pertinent information when there is a preexisting business relationship. This section does not prohibit the use of an automated telephone system or device if the permission of the called party is obtained by a live operator before the recorded message is delivered.
Most Montanans will agree that this is a good, reasonable law. However, it hasn’t actually been enforced, even though it has been violated in every election season since it took effect – and violated for nonpolitical calls. As reported by Holly Michels in Tuesday’s Billings Gazette, violation of the state robocall statute is a criminal offense. The law provides that violations would be prosecuted in the county where the call was received, but no such prosecutions have been reported.
Now that Fox has successfully defended the law, we urge him to find a workable way to enforce it statewide. Then, Montanans will enjoy more of the peace and privacy our attorney general and lawmakers have aimed to protect.