The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a decades-old ruling banning robocalls from cell phones and expanded restrictions to prohibit robocallers from attempting to collect government-backed debts.
As the 2020 federal election looms, political consultants, pollsters and non-profits challenged the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act banning automated calls as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Plaintiffs in the case were the American Association of Political Consultants and three other political organizations.
A loophole passed in 2015 by the U.S. Congress previously allowed phone calls from creditors for mortgages and student loans, which plaintiffs said allowed some forms of speech, but not others in robocalls. Plaintiffs said debt collectors were benefitting from free speech while others were banned.
But the court ruled 6 to 3 on Monday that even debt collection calls should be prohibited going forward.
“Americans passionately disagree about many things. But they are largely united in their disdain for robocalls,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the majority opinion.
“The federal government receives a staggering number of complaints about robocalls — 3.7 million complaints in 2019 alone,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The states likewise field a constant barrage of complaints … Plaintiffs still may not make political robocalls to cell phones, but their speech is now treated equally with debt-collection speech.”
Other officials praised the decision.
“I’m glad to hear that Americans, who are sick and tired of robocalls will now get the relief from federal debt collector robocalls they have long deserved,” said Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in statement.
A dissenting opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch said Congress’ 1991 cell phone ban sprang from a time when consumers paid for unwanted cell calls instead of a monthly plan for unlimited calls. He called for protection of debt collectors’ ability to contact borrowers, and said political pollsters should be allowed to partake in free speech as well.
“Somehow, in the name of vindicating the First Amendment, our remedial course today leads to the unlikely result that not a single person will be allowed to speak more freely and, instead, more speech will be banned,” Gorsuch wrote.
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