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Friday, July 29, 2016

Sorry Iowa, Political Robocalls Are Protected by the First Amendment

While I currently live in California, I spent most of my life in Iowa, and I regularly visit my family in Iowa around the holidays. It is nice to go back, but if it happens to be a month before a caucus, I find that the phone rings off the hook with repeated robocalls from various candidates -- a phenomenon that I simply do not experience now that I live in such a politically irrelevant state. During my 2012 visit home I would try to guess which Republican candidate would greet me with their pre-recorded voice -- Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich were the safest bets.

If somebody had proposed banning these robocalls, I would have welcomed the proposal without hesitation. But, according to the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, my enthusiasm would have been misplaced.

Political robocalls may be an irritating feature of modern campaigning, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protection under the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled. 
A decision handed down Wednesday in Arkansas federal court struck down a state law passed 35 years ago that banned political robocalls. The statute restricted commercial robocalling and also made it unlawful to solicit information “in connection with a political campaign” using an automated phone system for dialing numbers and playing recorded messages. 
. . .

The state attorney general’s office defended the robocall prohibition as a justifiable effort to respect people’s privacy interests and protect them from unwanted intrusions into their homes. They also argued that the law prevented “the seizure of phone lines, which could interfere with emergency calls being placed or received.” 
U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes was unpersuaded. He said the state’s motives would be more convincing had the law targeted robocalling more broadly.
The full text of the opinion is here.

Content-based restrictions on speech must pass the difficult "strict scrutiny" test -- meaning that advocates for the law must argue that the law is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. The Arkansas law and the courts ruling on it present an interesting case in which the law was deemed underinclusive -- that is, the government interest in preventing privacy violations from automated calls is only partially served by a ban on one subset of automated calls. Often, in the context of freedom of speech, it is more likely that a statute will be deemed overinclusive in that the law prohibits too much speech to be narrowly tailored to achieve its goal.

It looks like Iowans and others will continue to suffer political robocalls. Additionally, if I were a law student, I would take note of this case, as its emphasis on underinclusiveness highlights an aspect of strict scrutiny that is often unaddressed, and that may be likely to make its way onto a future exam...

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