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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ind. Courts - Star on "Indiana high court takes up 'robo' calls" next Monday

The Sunday Indy Star column, Behind Closed Doors, has this item today on tomorrows oral arguments in the case of State of Indiana v. American Family Voices, Inc. et al.. Some quotes:

A dispute over whether a state law can ban prerecorded phone calls in political races is about to be in the hands of the Indiana Supreme Court.

The justices were scheduled to hear arguments Monday over a lawsuit by the state attorney general's office against a Washington, D.C., group that made the so-called "robo" calls during a 2006 Indiana congressional campaign.

A 1988 state law bans all such calls, which are placed by automated dialers, and the arguments in the lawsuit center on whether it covers political calls. Commercial and sales-related calls are covered.

"The court is the only thing that stands in the way of an avalanche of unwanted, unnecessary phone calls this fall in Indiana," state Attorney General Steve Carter said. "It's literally something that will impact millions of consumers."

The attorney general's office sued Washington-based American Family Voices in 2006 after it made calls criticizing Republican Mike Sodrel during his race against Democrat Baron Hill for Southern Indiana's 9th Congressional District seat.

The state Republican and Democratic parties, while not named in the lawsuit, have filed a joint brief with the Supreme Court, saying that such calls, when used for political messages, are protected free speech.

"It's not up to the government to decide what modes of communication are most efficient and effective for political speech," said James Bopp, a Terre Haute attorney who is representing the political parties. He also is a member of the Republican National Committee.

Campaigns and special-interest groups use robo calls for purposes such as reminding voters to go to the polls, delivering endorsements or criticizing opponents. They are far cheaper than calls made by volunteers or paid personnel.

More than a dozen states have placed limits or bans on political robo calls, according to Stateline .org, a project of the Pew Center that tracks state legislation.

The Indiana General Assembly passed the robo-call ban in 1988, but it wasn't enforced in political campaigns until 2006, when Carter told the Republican and Democratic parties that it also applied to political calls. The parties were frustrated but abided by the ban. * * *

"I'm going to be arguing that the statute the attorney general is trying to use to regulate political speech wasn't designed for that purpose, that it was designed to regulate commercial speech only," said Anthony Overholt, an Indianapolis attorney representing the group. "The constitutional issues will only come into play, I think, if the Supreme Court were to decide that the statute does in fact reach political speech."

But Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker said that argument could lead to bans on political television and radio commercials, Internet ads or the distribution of fliers.

"Where would it end?" Parker said. "There are some points before an election where I'm tired of all the TV ads, but that's free speech. It's the right of a candidate to try to get their message out before an election."

See this list of earlier ILB entries on robo calls.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 15, 2008 12:29 PM
Posted to Upcoming Oral Arguments