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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Supreme Court keeps TCPA, severs government-debt exception as unconstitutional

Courts U.S. Supreme Court TCPA Autodialer Debt Collection FCC Appellate Fourth Circuit First Amendment

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On July 6, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. that the TCPA’s government-debt exception is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the remainder of the statute. As previously covered by InfoBytes, several political consultant groups (plaintiffs) argued that the TCPA’s 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, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated, concluding the exemption violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

In a plurality opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with the 4th Circuit. The Court noted that “a law is content-based if ‘a regulation of speech ‘on its face’ draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys’”; and a law that allows for robocalls asking for payment of government debt but does not allow robocalls for political donations, “is about as content-based as it gets.” The Court agreed with the government that the content-based restriction failed to satisfy strict scrutiny, as the government could not sufficiently justify the difference “between government-debt collection speech and other categories of robocall speech.” As for remedy, the Court applied “traditional severability principles,” with seven Justices concluding that the entire TCPA should not be invalidated but that the government-debt exception should be severed from the statute. The Court noted that its cases have “developed a strong presumption of severability,” and its “power and preference to partially invalidate a statute in that fashion has been firmly established since Marbury v. Madison.” Moreover, because the government-debt exception is “relatively narrow exception” to the TCPA’s broad robocall restriction, the Court concluded that severing the exception would “not raise any other constitutional problems.”

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