If there’s one thing that can unite Americans, it’s a disdain for robocalls. You can expect fewer autodials, though, since the Supreme Court this week struck down a 2015 law allowing automated messages by debt collectors.
Nearly 30 years ago, Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA), which generally prohibits robocalls to home and mobile phones. A recent amendment, however, allows pre-recorded messages to be made if collecting debts to the government—including student loan and mortgage balances.
The robocall restriction survived strict scrutiny because of the government’s “compelling interest in collecting debt,” according to this week’s Supreme Court decision. “Severing this relatively narrow exception to the broad robocall restriction fully cures the First Amendment unequal treatment problem and does not raise any other constitutional problems,” the ruling, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said.
This case began when the American Association of Political Consultants and three other organizations—which “make calls to citizens to discuss candidates and issues, solicit donations, conduct polls, and get out the vote”—filed a declaratory judgement against the U.S. Attorney General and FCC, claiming the 2015 law violates their First Amendment rights. Plaintiffs believe their outreach would be more effective and efficient, the court document said, if they could make robocalls. But, as they are not collecting government debt, the law prohibits it.
“As the government concedes, the robocall restriction with the government-debt exception cannot satisfy strict scrutiny,” the July 6 ruling said. “The government has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, issue advocacy, and the like.”
A majority of conservative justices—Kavanaugh, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch, as well as liberal-leaning Sonia Sotomayor—agreed that the 2015 government-debt exception violates the First Amendment. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan, meanwhile, would have upheld the government-debt exception, “but given the contrary majority view, agreed that the provision is severable from the rest of the statute,” according to the decision.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who previously opposed the Obama Administration’s 2015 “carve-out” for federal debt collectors, praised Monday’s ruling: “I am glad to hear that Americans, who are sick and tired of unwanted robocalls, will now get the relief from federal-debt-collector robocalls they have long deserved,” he said in a statement.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel—often in opposition to Pai—also agreed with this week’s decision, tweeting that “robocalls are OUT OF CONTROL.” “Now let’s do something radical,” she added. “Let’s use it to finally stop these calls and the scams behind them.”
The FCC has been working to combat illegal robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing through policy initiatives, enforcement actions, public and private partnerships, and consumer education.