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Article 20 on Robocalls: What Happened, What I Said, and What You Can Do Next


"Don't worry. They'll be back."
"Aye. To vote us down."
- Reverend Jonathan Witherspoon and Colonel Thomas McKean, 1776


Last night, Brookline Town Meeting had its final session in May. One of the articles we were considering was Article 20, which I filed in an attempt to get some sort of regulation for political robocalls.

Throughout the process of bringing my article to Town Meeting, the biggest obstacle I encountered was that many people felt that robocalls, as annoying as they are, are protected speech under the First Amendment. My original article suggested calling for a ban on robocalls, but the Advisory Committee supported an alternate motion calling for their regulation, which I supported.

Unfortunately, neither the Board of Selectmen nor Town Meeting felt the same way I did. I presented my case last night, but in the end Town Meeting voted down the motion by a majority vote.

My hope was that we could send a message to our political candidates that excessive robocalls are not an acceptable method of campaigning. Despite the fact that Brookline Town Meeting disagrees, if you live in Massachusetts you still have a chance to let your voice be heard.

This year, the Honorable Stephen Kulik, who represents the First Franklin District in the Massachusetts House, has sponsored House Bill H00870, "legislation to restrict calllers from using certain automatic dialing devices for sending informaion to subscribers of telephone services." Furthermore, eleven other representatives and senators are supporting the bill.

If you live in Massachusetts and feel as I do on this issue, I encourage you to contact your state representative and state senator, and let them know that you support House Bill H00870 and would like to see it pass.

Otherwise, expect to be bothered by robocalls again and again during election season.

Folks last night did tell me that I thought I spoke very well. I assume that at some point Brookline Access Television will make the third night of Town Meeting available on their website; in the meantime, for those of you who are interested, the text of my floor speech is below. (Bonus points to anyone who catches my reference to Spider-Man.)


Article 20 Floor Speech

To begin with, I’d like to remind you that the motion we will be voting on tonight is the one moved by and supported by the Advisory Committee, which calls for the regulation, not the banning, of robocalls in political campaigns. As you will soon hear, members of the Advisory Committee and the Board of Selectmen had concerns about the use of the word “banning” in my original warrant article, and I am happy to support the revised motion offered by the Advisory Committee.

I’d like to give you a little background explaining why I filed Article 20. For many years, my wife and I had received political robocalls for various elections, and we accepted them as a part of the political process.

But during the special senate race of 2009-2010, two things changed my mind. First of all, my wife and I were now parents of twin baby girls. Secondly, political robocalls exploded throughout the state. Imagine what it is like to finally get both of your babies to sleep, only to have them woken by a phone call bearing a recorded message asking you to vote for a particular candidate. This happened over and over as we got closer to both the primary and general election. Furthermore, the candidates seemed to use no discretion at all when it came to employing this tool. We ourselves received the same recorded message four times in one night from one particular candidate.

When I complained to friends about the incessant robocalls, many suggested that we simply turn off the ringer or get rid of our land line. Some of us do not have these options, as we need to have the ringer on in case of emergencies. Those with cell phones will soon find that they too will be the recipients of robocalls. In any event, political candidates should not be the ones who get to dictate how I use my phone.

Frankly, I think we will be doing political candidates a favor if we pass this resolution. My wife received so many robocalls from Scott Brown that she averred publicly that she would never vote for the man. Our friend Rebecca who lives in Brighton received so many robocalls from the Martha Coakley campaign that she decided enough was enough and now refuses to vote for Coakley in any election. I suspect that both Brown and Coakley would prefer having not annoyed their potential supporters to the point of driving them to either vote for their opponent or to vote not at all.

The most significant objection I’ve heard to the regulation of robocalls is that it would be an infringement on freedom of speech. The fact that in 2003, Congress established a Do-Not-Call list implies to me that freedom of speech is not as significant an issue when compared to privacy rights, but still, let me present my perspective on this.

Freedom of speech is a two-way street. It is a great power that we the people ensured for ourselves in our constitution, but with this great power there must also come great responsibility. Your right to publish a newspaper does not require me to buy a copy and read it. Your right to create a cable news channel does not require me to watch it twenty-four hours a day.

When the same robocall comes in from a political campaign four times in one night, the line has been crossed from freedom of speech to harassment. Political robocalls are not akin to television or newspaper ads carrying a candidate’s message. They are much more like having someone stop you on the street to try to push their political message on you. Once, I was walking in Coolidge Corner when someone attempted to proselytize to me, and I walked away. I thought that would be the end of it. Instead, this person followed me and stood in my way, shouting at me and pushing his literature on me. Fortunately, one of Brookline’s Finest was working in Coolidge Corner that afternoon, and I asked him to intervene. The proselytizer might have the freedom of speech rights to approach people in the street to share his message, but I also have the right not to be bothered, and no one would tell me that I cannot employ the help of a police officer in securing my rights.

As for politicians who do wish to reach voters by phone, please note that the Advisory Committee motion does not ask for a regulation of political phone calls beyond those that combine computerized auto-dialers with pre-recorded messages. Nowhere does it call for regulation on phone calls from actual human volunteers, or even the candidates themselves, when it comes to reaching potential voters.

Also note that the motion calls for regulation in general, but not any specific form of regulation. So, for example, the motion would easily support the idea that robocalls should be prohibited from being made between the hours of 8 PM and 8 AM as the sole regulation. I suspect that even a free speech absolutist would acknowledge that banning robocalls at two in the morning falls under stopping harassment of citizens and is not an infringement of the First Amendment.

Should Town Meeting pass this resolution, it would send an important message to our political candidates that repeated use of robocalls is an ineffective and unacceptable form of campaigning.

Please join me in supporting the motion offered under Article 20.

Thank you.

Comments

Thanks. Fixed. But I'll leave this comment in place to remind the world that typos exist.
I believe soliciting calls do have hours, though I think it goes 7am to 9pm. Not exactly the best when you have small children.

I agree that the candidates who called daily were horribly annoying. Perhaps if they left a phone number (or URL) where you could call them back to be removed from the list?
If the robocalls included a phone number that you could call back to allow you to be removed from their list, that would be acceptable to me. Perhaps I'll file that more specific language for next Town Meeting.
Great speech.
Thank you.

Robocalls

Hmm,this may make you the first leader of what the future will call labor's war against robots.

Re: Robocalls

I suppose I could have invoked the upcoming threat from Skynet, but then they would have voted the motion down. Hey, wait a moment...
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