The US Supreme Court has upheld a federal ban on robocalls to cellphones from 1991, and it struck down a provision that exempted government-debt collectors.
“Americans passionately disagree about many things,” reads the majority opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “But they are largely united in their disdain for robocalls.”
The ruling concerns the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibited “almost all robocalls to phones.” A 2015 amendment to the TCPA grants an exception to robocalls made solely to collect debt on behalf of the US government.
The plaintiffs, a group of organizations that included the American Association of Political Consultants, argued that the ban violated the First Amendment by favoring debt collection speech over other forms of speech. The court agreed — but instead of striking down the TCPA, it did away with the 2015 exemption. That means the TCPA now applies to debt collection calls again.
“The robocall restriction with the government-debt exemption is content-based,” the opinion reads. “The government’s stated justification for the government-debt exception is collecting government debt. 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.”
So, in theory, government debt collectors aren’t allowed to send robocalls to your cellphone anymore. In practice, that’s probably wishful thinking.
Despite the fact that the TCPA has prohibited most robocalls for decades, they’re certainly alive and well. In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that more than half of all calls placed that year would be robocalls. Providers like Comcast, AT&T, and T-Mobile are in the process of rolling out promising call-verification technology, but the process has been slow, and it’s not clear yet when, or how well it will work. Still, fingers crossed.