COLUMBIA, SC – South Carolina’s law banning robocalls has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. “There’s going to be just ‘open the gates’ for robocalling, and if you are a voter, you’re likely to get a lot of calls,” says Bob Oldendick, director of the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.
The ruling came in a lawsuit against the state by political consultant Robert Cahaly. He was charged in 2010 with violating the law, even though he had an attorney general’s opinion stating that the calls he was making were legal. The charges were eventually dropped, but he sued the state to get the law overturned.
The law banned automated phone calls that deliver a recorded message, or “robocalls,” if they were unsolicited and for consumer or political purposes. There were exceptions: if the call was in response to a direct request of the person called; when connected to an existing debt or contract; or in response to a person with whom the solicitor had an existing or previous business relationship.
The court ruled that the ban was content-based and therefore an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
In a written statement Wednesday, Cahaly said, “I’m gratified to be part of a free speech ‘victory.’ When we filed this lawsuit nearly two and half years ago, we made it clear it wasn’t about money as we weren’t asking for punitive or even actual damages. The suit we brought to federal court was about setting the record straight and making sure that I would be the last victim of this flawed, easily misinterpreted, and unconstitutional law.”
Susan Appenzeller of Columbia doesn’t relish the thought of getting even more robocalls. Even though they were illegal before, some companies made them anyway because the fines are low. “They annoy me to death,” she says of the calls.
Oldendick says for people who are annoyed by robocalls, there is some hope–research that shows the calls might have the opposite effect from what’s intended. After so many robocalls, voters might decide not to vote for a certain candidate. Since campaigns are trying to encourage people to vote for their candidates, people unhappy about getting robocalls could convince campaigns not to make them.
Appenzeller says, “I don’t think I have ever shaded my vote one way or another from a telephone call.”