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Supreme Court Prohibits Mobile Phone Robocalls To Collect Federal Debt

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a law letting federal debt collectors make robocalls.
The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a law letting federal debt collectors make robocalls.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a 2015 law allowing federal debt collectors to make robocalls violates the Constitution. That's because those debt collectors were allowed to make automated calls while other groups weren't given the same treatment.

Congress generally isn't allowed to favor certain speech over others, but that's precisely what Congress did, wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the six-member majority. "A robocall that says, 'Please pay your government debt' is legal," Kavanaugh wrote. "A robocall that says, 'Please donate to our political campaign' is illegal. That is about as content-based as it gets.

"Congress has impermissibly favored debt-collection speech over political and other speech, in violation of the First Amendment," Kavanaugh wrote. Political groups "still may not make political robocalls to cell phones, but their speech is now treated equally with debt-collection speech."

For nearly 30 years, robocalls have generally been prohibited under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. But in 2015, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act, amending the law to let debt collectors make automated calls to collect money owed to the federal government, including many student loan and mortgage debts.

The Supreme Court challenge was brought by political advocacy groups who didn't think it was fair that only those debt collectors could make robocalls to cellphones. The groups, including the American Association of Political Consultants, wanted to make robocalls to discuss candidates and issues, solicit donations, and encourage voter participation. So they tried to argue that the entire robocall ban was invalid, a suppression of otherwise permissible speech.

The court allowed the general robocall ban to stand. But the 2015 exception for debt collectors was a violation of the First Amendment, the court said.

"Although collecting government debt is no doubt a worthy goal, the Government concedes that it has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, charitable fundraising, issue advocacy, commercial advertising, and the like," Kavanaugh wrote.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented, saying they thought the government had justified special treatment for federal debt collectors. "The speech-related harm at issue here — and any related effect on the marketplace of ideas — is modest," Breyer wrote for the dissenters.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commended the court's ruling. "Thanks to the Supreme Court, the carve-out is no more," he said in a statement. "Today, the Court found that the last Administration's attempt to create a special exemption for favored debt collectors was not only bad policy but unconstitutional. 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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").