Pull the plug on robo-calls

If there's anything more aggravating than having your dinner interrupted by a telemarketing call, it's having to get up and answer the phone only to hear a recorded voice. It's as if the company or organization making the call didn't even have the decency to provide a live human being on the other end of the line.

So-called "robo-calls" are increasingly used by political candidates and activist groups at election time. By last year's November election, two-thirds of Oregon registered voters received such a call.

Senate Bill 836, which passed the Senate Friday, would restrict such calls. Opponents of the bill call it an unwarranted infringement on free speech. We call that hogwash.

SB 836 would not limit live calls, just automated ones. And it would bar only calls to people who had asked not to be contacted, by placing their names on the National Do Not Call Registry, or to people who would have to pay a fee to receive the call. It also would require callers to list their number on caller ID so people could call back and ask to be taken off the list, and would require automated calls to disconnect 10 seconds after a customer hangs up.

There is a constitutional issue involved here. In fact, the original version of the bill was paired with a companion resolution asking voters to amend the state Constitution to allow the new law to take effect. But the bill was amended to limit its scope and allow it to pass constitutional muster.

The Do Not Call Registry does make a distinction between commercial speech — a caller wanting to sell you a new mortgage or clean your carpets — and political speech. Charitable fundraising calls also are exempt from the Do Not Call restrictions.

But we see an important distinction between a live person calling to ask for your vote and an impersonal recorded message. If candidates or issue groups want to engage in political speech, let them do it in person. If they want to send out canned messages to as many people as possible, that's what direct mail is for.

Some opponents of the bill say it's unfair to candidates who don't have much money — that it would inhibit "grass-roots" campaigns. Again, we beg to differ.

Real grass-roots campaigning means assembling an army of volunteers who believe in your candidacy enough to make phone calls on your behalf for free. It means wearing out shoe leather going door to door in the district you seek to represent — along with more of those volunteers.

It doesn't mean buying a robo-call machine because it's cheaper than paying for a professional phone bank.

Elections were conducted in this country for years before automated calling technology became available. Somehow, the republic survived; we see no reason to fear that protecting Oregonians' privacy in this small way will threaten its future existence.

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