Last week, a bi-partisan coalition of political groups and the federal government completed briefing cross motions for summary judgment in American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., et al. v. Sessions, Case No. 5:16-cv-00252-D (E.D.N.C.). The case challenges the constitutionality of a portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). The plaintiffs contend that the TCPA’s prohibition on making auto-dialed calls or texts to cell phones without the requisite consent, 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) (the “cell phone ban”), imposes a content-based restriction on speech that fails to pass strict scrutiny and is unconstitutionally under-inclusive (the plaintiffs’ complaint is discussed here). The government is defending the statute’s constitutionality (previously discussed here).
In their summary judgment briefing, the plaintiffs argued that content-based exemptions to the TCPA’s cell phone ban, such as an exemption for debt collection calls made on behalf of the government, render the cell phone ban unconstitutional. According to the plaintiffs, these exemptions produce outcomes where certain speech is privileged in violation of the First Amendment. In particular, the plaintiffs asserted that the exemptions fail to withstand strict scrutiny because they are not narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means available. Further, the plaintiffs rejected the government’s suggestion of severing the disputed exemptions because such action would not curb the power of Congress or the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to promulgate future content-based exemptions.
The government responded to the plaintiffs’ arguments by asserting that the TCPA’s cell phone ban is a content-neutral “time, place, and manner regulation” concerned with restricting the method of calling cell phones, but not the content of those calls. Alternatively, the government asserted that even if the TCPA was found to be a content-based restriction on speech, it would nonetheless survive strict scrutiny because it serves a compelling governmental interest in protecting consumer privacy, is narrowly tailored, and lacks a comparable alternative. The government also argued that the court should not consider certain FCC orders providing exemptions to the TCPA’s cell phone ban because such orders do not call into question the constitutionality of the TCPA itself. Finally, the government argued that should there be a finding that the government-debt exemption is unconstitutional, the court should sever that provision from the cell phone ban and leave the remainder of the TCPA intact.
Although we cannot predict how the court will decide the cross motions for summary judgment, it is significant that the court is set to rule on a broad challenge to the TCPA’s constitutionality. K&L Gates LLP will continue to monitor the case and post developments as they occur.