On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the FCC, concluding that an exemption under the TCPA that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. According to the opinion, several political consultant groups (plaintiffs) argued that a statutory exemption enacted by Congress as a means of allowing automated calls to be placed to individuals’ cell phones “that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government” is “facially unconstitutional under the Free Speech Clause” of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs argued that the debt-collection exemption to the automated call ban contravenes their free speech rights. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that “the free speech infirmity of the debt-collection exemption is not severable from the automated call ban and renders the entire ban unconstitutional.” The FCC, however, argued that the applicability of the exemption depended on the relationship between the government and the debtor and not on the content. The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of the FCC after applying a “strict scrutiny review,” ruling that the exemption does not violate the Free Speech Clause.
On appeal the 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs that the exemption contravenes the Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. “Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor.” And because the exemption is a content-based restriction on speech, it must satisfy strict scrutiny review to be constitutional, which it fails to do, the 4th Circuit opined. “The exemption thus cannot be said to advance the purpose of privacy protection, in that it actually authorizes a broad swath of intrusive calls. . . [and] therefore erodes the privacy protections that the automated call ban was intended to further.” However, the appellate court sided with the FCC to sever the debt collection exemption from the automated call ban. “First and foremost, the explicit directives of the Supreme Court and Congress strongly support a severance of the debt-collection exemption from the automated call ban,” the panel stated. “Furthermore, the ban can operate effectively in the absence of the debt-collection exemption, which is clearly an outlier among the statutory exemptions.”