Missouri Senate backs bill that limits 'robocalls'

Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 7:49 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missourians on the state's do-not-call list could see fewer automated calls under legislation passed Thursday in the state Senate.

The measure, backed by senators in a 32-0 vote, generally would forbid automated calls unless a person has consented to receiving them, but still would allow the calls, known as "robocalls" to be made on behalf of political campaigns or candidates. Groups that make political robocalls would have to register with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Sponsoring Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said automated political calls can't be banned because that would interfere with a candidate's First Amendment right to free speech. Under his legislation, those calls would have to include a statement saying who paid for the calls, similar to the statement at the end of political television ads.

Rupp said that type of statement is important because some campaigns can use robocalls to deceive voters rather than promote a candidate. He said he's received complaints in the past about robocalls made in support of his candidacy that he did not actually endorse. And he said some campaigns will make robocalls in support of their rival at inconvenient times — such as during dinner hour or the middle of the night — in hopes of ginning up voter anger directed at the rival candidate.

"A lot of people just can't stand them," he said. "The calls could be eating up their (phone) minutes."

Rupp's legislation passed the Senate about a week after the Federal Communications Commission issued rules requiring telemarketers to obtain written consent from people before placing a robocall. Telemarketers now also have to provide an automated way for people to request that the robocalls be stopped.

Thursday's Senate vote sends the robocalls legislation to the Missouri House of Representative. Rupp said he was unsure whether the bill will get traction in that chamber, but he said he is pushing the legislation this year to bring attention to the issue. The bill also would expand the state's no-call list to include cellphone numbers. It currently applies only to residential land-line phones.

Under Rupp's bill, telemarketers that make automated calls without the recipient's permission could face a fine of up $5,000 for each violation.

Robocall measures similar to Rupp's have been filed in the Senate each year since 2007, and proposals to expand the do-not-call list to include cellphones have been introduced in the House in each of the past six years, but none has received a vote by the full House chamber.

The Senate passed separate legislation last week that would also add cellphone numbers to the state's no-call list. The sponsor of that bill, Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, said he intentionally left provisions dealing with robocalls out of his legislation to improve its chance of passing the House.

"I think that there are political consultants that want to have that ability to do robocalls and therefore they could stop the bill from ever getting a vote in the House," Kraus said then.

But Rep. Darrell Pollock, R-Lebanon, chairman of the House Utilities Committee, said he had never opposed more rules to curb robocalls in his two years as committee chairman. He said the Senate proposals would likely get a hearing before his committee.

Pollock said he would also be supportive of legislation to expand the no-call list.

"The more that I'm getting these calls on my cellphone, the more that I agree with them," he said of the Senate proposals.


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