The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) was enacted in 1991 to lessen the impact of calling practices that invade consumer privacy and threaten public safety. One such intrusive calling practice is known as a “robocall.” Robocalls are made either with an automated telephone dialing system (autodialer) or with a prerecorded or artificial voice. The TCPA and its implementing rules prohibit callers from making any non-emergency robocall to a wireless telephone number without prior express consent.

As calling technology develops, schools have increasingly relied on robocalls and automated text messages to communicate with large numbers of students and families within a short time frame. For example, a school district may send an automated message to alert parents when their children are absent from school. An individual school may use robocalls to inform families of upcoming school events, such as Back to School Night. A community college may use an automated text message to notify students of an unscheduled class cancelation.

In a recent Declaratory Ruling, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) confirmed that schools may lawfully make robocalls and send automated texts to student family wireless phones pursuant to an “emergency purpose” exemption or with prior express consent, without violating the TCPA.

The “emergency purpose” exemption includes weather closures, fire, health risks, threats, and unexcused student absences. For emergency calls or messages, prior express consent is not required.

For non-emergency situations, schools may make robocalls and send automated text messages regarding topics closely related to the school’s mission to people who have given prior express consent. The FCC also clarified that people who knowingly provide their telephone numbers have given their permission to be called at the number they provided, absent instructions to the contrary. The FCC determined merely providing a telephone contact number satisfies the express consent requirement so long as the call or text is closely related to the purpose for which the person provided the number. Thus, informational robocalls or automated texts related to the educational mission of the school or regarding official school activities may be made to people who have provided their phone numbers to the school, unless they specify otherwise. Any time after consent is given, or the phone number is provided, consent to accept robocalls and automated texts may be revoked, either orally or in writing. Schools are required to honor revocation requests.

The FCC reiterated that schools, like other callers, are liable for robocalls and automated texts to reassigned wireless numbers when the current subscriber or customary user of the number has not consented. This liability applies after a one-call/text opportunity in situations where the school does not have knowledge of the number’s reassignment.

Based on the requirements of TCPA, as confirmed by this FCC ruling, best practice is to (i) disclose the full range of potential calls and messages the school expects to send; (ii) request prior express, written consent to robocalls and automated texts; and (iii) honor all revocation requests, whether oral or written.