Litigant sends clear message to telemarketers

DAN RODRICKS

June 12, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

As a concept, if not a constitutional guarantee, the "right to be left alone" strikes me as magnificently American. The right to be left alone -- to lead a wholly private or freely enterprising life -- is a liberty of grand scope; it is the spirit that drives the American pursuit of happiness. As Daniel Boone's younger brother Herb ++ once said: "When you can hear their dulcimers, it's time to move on."

Yesterday, in Baltimore County District Court, Towson, two interpretations of the "right to be left alone" clashed. One side was distinctly louder than the other.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" boomed David Boyd.

Boyd, passionately desiring a private life free of telemarketers, had filed suit against the private Baltimore County cemetery that, in its pursuit of business, called him at home -- suddenly, without warning -- on two occasions within a year.

Not only did Boyd not want to buy a burial plot.

He didn't even want the phone call.

He hates telemarketing, those annoying sales pitches that come over the telephone at inopportune times -- during supper, while you're changing diapers, while you're watching "Jeopardy," just after you've sat down to inspect the new Victoria's Secret catalog.

Boyd has an unpublished phone number and lives in White Hall, in the People's Republic of North County, and he's one of those pesky tax protesters from way up there. (He thinks the right to be left alone includes the right to pay a lot less in taxes, too, but that's another matter.)

I'm with Boyd. When they call us at home, telemarketers infringe on our right to be left alone. It's an invasion of sanctuary.

Countering this view are champions of free expression -- the right to be left alone to say or sell whatever you want. They say that laws restricting telemarketing interfere with businesses' free-speech rights, blah, blah, blah.

In March, the Supreme Court gave consumers a break, ruling that automated telemarketing -- sales pitches done by machine with a computerized voice -- can be regulated or even banned by states.

That case, however, did not deal with telemarketing calls made by real, live people trying to sell a burial plot.

That's the kind of pitch Mr. Boyd received from Dulaney Valley. The first time was in January 1992.

He griped about it right away, calling the cemetery the next dayand warning that, should Dulaney Valley call again, Boyd would "send a bill for $100."

"If my right to be left alone does not exist at home," Boyd wrote in a follow-up letter to the cemetery, "it will not exist at all."

Here, here!

Over the years, Dulaney Valley has done many splendid things for the community, designating special sections of the cemetery for memorials to veterans, police officers and firefighters who are killed in the line of duty, and even to victims of terrorism. The same cemetery indulges in the nuisance of telephone marketing.

Sales calls make everyone's Top-10 Gripes list, and surveys have shown they constitute the single largest source of annoyance with telephones. Private Citizen, a Chicago-based group that helps pestered people get their phone numbers off call lists, was formed a few years ago in response to the growth in telemarketing. David Boyd, up there in White Hall, is a member.

When a second call came from Dulaney Valley, this past January, Boyd did as he promised. He took one small step for mankind.

"Let this serve as a bill," he wrote Al Donnelly, the cemetery's directorof marketing.

Boyd demanded $100 for "invading my privacy."

Here, here!

A week later, Dulaney Valley sent Boyd a "Do Not Call" form and a self-addressed stamped envelope, asking him to verify his phone number so that the cemetery could honor his request not to be bothered.

"Our telemarketing department keeps detailed records on all telephone numbers with the same request," wrote Donnelly. "This has been our procedure for the past seven years."

Boyd refused to fill out the form. "They tried to place the burden on me!" he groused. And, of course, he had a point he wanted to make, a case he wanted to press -- preferably in the press.

He wanted $100 for his time, too.

Unfortunately, Boyd's claim against Dulaney Valley was improperly filed. It was presented as a violation of contract, which it wasn't, Judge John Garmer told him. Also, Donnelly was improperly listed as the defendant. And, the judge said, it was impossible to attach a value to Boyd's right to be left alone, and to put a price on the amount it was infringed.

Claim denied.

Point made.

Here, here!

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