Bills blocking `robo-calls' meet resistance

Some legislators defend use of last-minute automated phone communication in campaigns

General Assembly

February 28, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

The automated calls seemed to arrive every day in the month leading up to the November election.

Some came late in the night. Many voters found them annoying and complained to candidates that they didn't want to receive them.

But some state legislators are having trouble persuading their colleagues to abandon the "robo-calls."

Three bills in the General Assembly would block automated political campaign calls to anyone on the federal do-not-call registry, which protects phone customers only from people trying to sell them something.

But yesterday, several senators argued that the automated political calls were effective ways to counter last-minute assaults from opponents and conduct informal polls of constituents during the legislative session.

They also raised the question of whether it was legal to regulate political speech.

Sen. E. J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said that by the end of a campaign season, voters are sick of political ads on radio and television, too. But he noted that there's "no do-not-mail registry, or do-not-radio registry, or do-not-TV registry. ... Your bills take away my right to respond" to last-minute attacks.

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and primary sponsor of one of the bills, pushed back.

"You're coming from the viewpoint of the person making the calls," he said. "I'm coming from the viewpoint of the person receiving the calls."

Pipkin recommended that Kittleman not answer his home phone or turn off his answering machine in the final days before the election.

"I have four children," Kittleman said, explaining that turning off his answering machine, which could contain important messages, was not an option. These calls "bother my family. People have a right not to be bothered."

According to guidance from the attorney general's office this month, that right only goes so far. Of all forms of speech, political speech is the most protected.

In a letter to Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat who is sponsoring the ban in the House of Delegates, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe wrote that singling out automated campaign communications could run afoul of the First Amendment.

A safer approach, Rowe wrote, would be to mimic Indiana's legislation. Indiana blocked all robo-calls, no matter the content, unless the recipient had consented to such calls or the message was immediately preceded by a live person who obtained that consent before turning on the automated system.

As of November, five states regulate political robo-calls, according to attorneys for the Connecticut General Assembly, which was considering similar legislation.

Indiana and Minnesota do so generally, while Arkansas, Montana and North Dakota specifically ban political campaigns from using the strategy.

Courts have upheld at least three of these statutes, noting "ample alternative channels of communication," according to the research.

But Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee, said that reaching voters is difficult.

"When you run for office, you have to do your best to reach voters," he said. "This is one means to increase voter participation."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.