FCC moves to assure lawmakers on legality of tele-town halls

FCC moves to assure lawmakers on legality of tele-town halls
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The Federal Communications Commission took a step Monday to clarify that automated robocalls for tele-town halls do not violate the law.

Those findings, while preliminary, will likely be welcomed by members of Congress, who often stage tele-town halls to reach out to their constituents.

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On Monday afternoon, the FCC circulated to its commissioners three rulings that incorporate a recent Supreme Court decision. Those rulings, an FCC official said, clarify that companies can perform automated outreach on behalf of congressional offices and federal agencies without violating restrictions in a federal law known as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The ruling on tele-town halls would not apply to robocalls made as part of lawmaker's campaigns — but rather just the calls they make in their official capacity — the official said.

The agency’s five commissioners will still have to approve those rulings. The commissioners vote on rulings at their discretion, so there is no deadline.

The legality of automated outreach for tele-town halls was highlighted when Supreme Court in January affirmed that the government is immune from the restrictions in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the major statute dealing with robocalls and other automated messages. The court ruled that federal contractors, in order to be immune from the law’s restrictions, must stay within the confines of the directions they received from the government entity paying for their services.

“The United States and its agencies, it is undisputed, are not subject to the TCPA’s prohibitions because no statute lifts their immunity,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the majority opinion.

Companies frequently reach out to the commission to make sure that they are following the rules concerning robocalls. One of the petitions came from a company that runs tele-town hall outreach for members of Congress, while the other two came from firms that work with the federal government.

One of the companies conducts outreach relating to employment benefits, while another runs surveys for federal agencies, according to the official.

The legality of tele-town halls is important to congressional offices, which use them to get constituents to participate in the events.

When the commission approved new robocalling rules last June, it later had to release guidance clarifying that as long as contractors working for lawmakers “continue to adhere to the decades old rules” in certain cases, they would remain in the clear.