Last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC” or “Commission”) issued a Declaratory Ruling addressing certain Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) compliance concerns raised by educational technology company Blackboard, Inc. (“Blackboard”).

When can schools and their affiliates make autodialed calls?

TCPA Compliance and Calls for Emergency Purposes

Generally, the TCPA regulates certain unsolicited telephone calls and text messages made/delivered using autodialers and/or prerecorded messages.  The FCC is empowered to issue rules and regulations implementing the TCPA and may take regulatory action against suspected offenders.

The TCPA expressly exempts calls and text messages made/delivered for “emergency purposes,” which the Commission defines as “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.”

Blackboard’s Petition

Last February, Blackboard filed a Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling with the FCC, requesting clarification from the Commission that all automated informational telephone calls and text messages sent by an educational organization are calls made for an “emergency purpose” and, therefore, fall outside of the scope of the TCPA.

In its Petition, Blackboard cited a variety of informational calls made by schools, including:

  • Attendance messages alerting parents to students’ unexcused absences;
  • Emergency messages alerting the school community to an emergency situation (e.g., fire, threat situation);
  • Outreach messages providing information regarding school activities; and
  • Survey messages allowing recipients to RSVP to events or provide input.

FCC Issues Ruling on TCPA Compliance for Schools

On August 4, 2016, the Commission issued a Declaratory Ruling in response to Blackboard’s Petition.  Although the FCC declined to exempt all school-related informational calls from TCPA compliance requirements, the Declaratory Ruling clarified that schools and their affiliates may make calls or deliver text messages without consent if related to unexcused absences, or in response to more traditional emergencies, such as weather closures, fire, health risks or threats.

In addition, the FCC held that schools and their affiliates may make calls and deliver text messages that “are closely related to the school’s mission, such as notification of an upcoming teacher conference or general school activity,” provided that the called party has given the school his or her phone number.

Schools and Related Marketers: Proceed with Caution

Please note that the Commission’s Declaratory Ruling does not exempt all school-related calls and text messages from TCPA compliance requirements.  Given the serious potential for TCPA exposure in today’s regulatory climate, schools and their marketing affiliates should speak with experienced telemarketing counsel before using modern technology to make phone calls or deliver text messages to students or other consumers.