First Amendment calling

Posted: Oct 02, 2003 12:00 AM

It says something about how pampered and passive Americans have become when Congress approves and President Bush signs a bill authorizing a National Do Not Call Registry.

America has become The Country That Forgot How to Hang Up. The nation is so clueless about hardship that citizens believe it's the government's job to protect them from having to answer the phone. We live in the land where voters want government out of their bedroom but inside their phone lines.

Let me stipulate that I dislike telemarketing calls as much as the next person. I don't like running to the phone only to hear a recording trying to sell me something I don't want. I don't like telemarketers who call during mealtime. I don't like salespeople who take advantage of my politeness -- I like to say, "No, thank you" before I sign off -- and try to engage me in a conversation we'll never have.

The thing is, I've found these amazing little tricks I can use to mitigate the problem -- and they don't involve the government. I don't always answer the telephone. I hang up on obnoxious telemarketers. Guess what: They work.

These methods also work on political fund-raisers, pollsters and charity solicitors, all of whom were so conveniently exempted by Washington pols.

So when President Bush announced that the 50 million Americans who have signed the registry "can protect their privacy and their family time from intrusive, annoying, unwelcome commercial solicitations," he conveniently ignored intrusive, annoying unwelcome calls from professional political fund-raisers. You see, they have First Amendment rights.

And don't you just love how Washington politicians equate political fund-raising with soliciting for charity -- as if it's a public service? Last week, a federal judge in Denver issued a ruling that barred enforcement of the registry. "In applying the First Amendment to commercial speech, the Supreme Court has rejected the highly paternalistic view that the government should be involved in assessing the value of, and determining, what consumers should and should not hear," wrote U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham. Since exemptions for charitable solicitors "imposed a content-based limitation on what a consumer may ban from his home," Nottingham found the registry to violate the First Amendment.

The Bush administration has pledged to fight the ruling. In the meantime, the Federal Trade Commission will keep track of violators who could be fined up to $11,000 per illicit phone call or $120,000 per telemarketing firm.

Frankly, I can't think of a bigger waste of taxpayer money than paying investigators -- The Phone Police -- to determine if telemarketers are making illegal calls and then paying attorneys to sue the ratty companies that ignore the list. I'd rather see the government go after real white-collar criminals.

Let me add that if Bill Clinton had been behind this bill, we Republicans would be having a field day hectoring him. We'd ridicule The Great Panderer for proposing another feel-good sop/boondoggle for soccer moms. But when George Bush signs the bill, suddenly it's a boon for quality family time.

Blech. The National Do Not Call Registry is an expensive new government program that does what families can do themselves. It keeps businesses from calling but protects political parties, under the phony pose of protecting pristine family time otherwise spent in peaceful contemplation.

I've got a message for Washington: Hanging up is a family value.