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State’s no-call list could be in jeopardy

The 3 million residents signed up for Pennsylvania’s do-not-call list can still keep those annoying telemarketers at bay — for now.

A federal ruling Thursday that found the national registry designed to thwart telemarketers violates free speech protections won’t have an immediate impact on the state’s popular registry.

But if the federal ruling is upheld on appeal, all it would take to threaten Pennsylvania’s list is a lawsuit filed in state court.

“I don’t think our law would be immediately invalidated, but it raises similar questions,” said George Pike, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Law School, who specializes in information law.

“It certainly would provide ammunition to any group that thought to challenge the law using the same arguments,” he said.

The ruling, handed down by a federal court in Denver, found that the national do-not-call list was unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it is not applied equally to all kinds of speech. Under the law, only charitable and political groups can call people on the list. Commercial entities can call their customers only if they have done business with the customer in the last 18 months.

Pennsylvania’s law has similar rules, which could open it up to challenges.

But the nation’s largest telemarketing industry group isn’t leading a charge against Pennsylvania’s registry just yet.

“I haven’t heard from my client,” said Loudon “Hap” Campbell, a Harrisburg lawyer and state lobbyist for the Direct Marketing Association. “I am not aware of any attempt from anyone to invalidate Pennsylvania’s do-not-call list.”

He said it is still too soon to see what impact, if any, the federal ruling will have on the state’s law.

“We’re a long way from resolving this,” he said. “It certainly raises some interesting issues if it is upheld on appeal.”

Sean Connolly, press secretary for the attorney general’s office, which enforces the list, said the latest decision would only impact the federal registry and those states that rely on that list to protect their residents. Pennsylvania has its own list and law, he said.

The office continues to accept do-not-call registrations and complaints.

“Pennsylvania’s do-not-call law remains in effect, and my Bureau of Consumer Protection will continue to aggressively pursue violators of this law,” Attorney General Mike Fisher said in a written statement. “If a challenge is filed, I will defend the state law in court because Pennsylvanians should be protected from unwanted telephone solicitations.”

Since the law went into effect last summer, the office has taken legal action in 31 cases in which telemarketers violated the law, collecting almost $360,000 in civil penalties and other costs.

Thursday’s ruling was the second blow from a federal court against the registry. Earlier this week, a federal judge in Oklahoma ruled the Federal Trade Commission — the agency overseeing the national registry — did not have the power to create and operate the list.

Federal lawmakers responded quickly, drafting and approving a bill in the House and Senate that passed in 24 hours — a remarkable feat since it takes months, even years, to pass most bills.

The politicians had reason to act fast: The registry has proven an enormous success in the four months since it began, so far listing 51 million phone numbers.

The latest rulings throw into doubt whether the list will go into effect Wednesday as scheduled.


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