Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Free speech and phone calls

Earlier this afternoon, I got a phone call on the house phone, and let it go to the answering machine (I use Google Voice and Skype while I’m working). The machine’s in another room, but I had no trouble hearing the message clearly, for as long as I was willing to listen before I went in to kill it.

The message was of someone SHOUTING, shouting about politics. Shouting about my congressguitarist, and why I shouldn’t vote for him.[1] He did this, he didn’t do that, he eats babies raw, and whatnot.

Shouting, did I say shouting? And, of course, it was a recorded message, the better to save the shouter’s voice for the next round.

This was probably the most egregious violation of my privacy I’ve ever encountered in a phone call that’s protected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

We have a do not call list in the U.S., federally mandated and implemented by the Federal Communications Commission. When Congress set that up, it came with a great deal of controversy about free speech rights, and how it would interfere with free speech. And, so, there are a few (or several, depending upon how you reckon those terms) categories of calls that are exempt, and may be made to anyone, even if her number be on the list:

  1. Calls from organizations with which you have established a business relationship.
  2. Calls for which you have given prior written permission.
  3. Calls which are not commercial or do not include unsolicited advertisements.
  4. Calls by or on behalf of tax-exempt non-profit organizations.

The first two categories come with mechanisms to remove yourself from the organizations’ call lists, and to revoke any permission you’ve given. But those last two categories, put there with free speech in mind, cover religious and political organizations, and such organizations can call you whenever they like, with no requirement that they allow you to opt out.

And, of course, during these last weeks before our elections, as you might imagine, the calls come, as we say, fast and furious. This one was particularly furious.

The battle is long lost, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly set free-speech boundaries well beyond where even I would set them, but this one is a complete mystery to me. I don’t agree that spending money should be equated to speech. I don’t agree that corporations should be given free-speech rights comparable to those of individuals.

But I really don’t see how anyone’s free-speech rights should allow them access to my home. I can’t accept that your right to speak freely includes any right to invade my privacy in order to do it.

I’m sympathetic to the concern over setting up situations where an organization blocks calls without your understanding what they’re blocking. But this isn’t that. I am putting my own numbers on the do-not-call list, and it is my choice not to receive calls from political or religious organizations. I should have that right, and no one should be allowed to force his way, or his electrons, into my home.

[1] Sorry, but I already have: as I noted the other day, I voted last week with an absentee ballot.

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