Washington, Sept. 26 (Reuters): US officials today vowed to save a popular measure that would let consumers curb telemarketing calls even though a federal judge has struck it down as a violation of free speech.
The head of the Federal Trade Commission said he would “seek every recourse” to rescue the “do-not-call” list of 50 million phone numbers, which would have been off-limits to telemarketers next week until the judge blocked it.
US district judge Edward Nottingham in Denver sidelined the list late yesterday, less than an hour after Congress moved with unusual haste to overrule a separate legal hurdle from another federal court in Oklahoma City. Nottingham said the no-call list amounted to“a government restriction on lawful and truthful free speech,” a decision that could imperil 38 state-run no-call lists as well.
FTC chairman Timothy Muris said Nottingham’s interpretation ignored personal privacy rights that were also enshrined in the US Constitution.
“Our constitution allows consumers to choose not to receive commercial telemarketing calls,” Muris said in a statement. “We will seek every recourse to give American consumers a choice to stop unwanted telemarketing calls.”
Michael Powell, head of the Federal Communications Commission, which also oversees the no-call list, pledged support as well. Neither immediately said his agency would appeal the decision, but many others following the case said an appeal was likely soon. Telemarketers will continue to make calls even to those households who had put their phone numbers on the list, said the head of the trade group that filed the lawsuit.
“We’re not in favour of the federal government eliminating 2 million jobs for a political sound bite in some sort of one-size-fits-all, ham-handed policy,” said Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Teleservices Association.
Lawmakers, fresh from a whirlwind vote to give the FTC the additional authority an Oklahoma City judge said it needed, said they were disappointed with this second setback and would examine what they could do about it. “Putting your name on the do-not-call list is no different than hanging a ‘no solicitation’ sign on your front door,” said Representatives Billy Tauzin and John Dingell, the chairman and top Democrat respectively on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Rest assured, we will examine the judge’s opinion closely and will take whatever steps we can to ensure that the do-not-call registry is open for business as scheduled,” the two said in a statement. Congressional leaders will meet next week to determine their next step, a committee spokesman said.
Rewriting the no-call list to address the judge’s concerns could prove tricky as Congress would have to resolve conflicting interpretations of free speech.
Nottingham lambasted the programme because it would block commercial calls but not charitable calls, an approach FTC officials have said in the past was designed to give a wide berth to free-speech concerns.