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New agency says it will handle do-not-call list

By Associated Press
Published September 30, 2003

Have you registered your phone number on the national do-not-call list?

WASHINGTON - The bewildering fight between the government and telemarketers over the national do-not-call list took another turn Monday when a second federal agency said it would enforce the program, promising that consumers would soon see some reduction in telephone sales pitches.

The Federal Communications Commission said it would seek fines of up to $120,000 against telemarketers each time they call people on the registry. The FCC got involved because the Federal Trade Commission, which is compiling the list and planned to enforce it, has been blocked by a federal judge.

Late Monday, that judge denied a FTC request to suspend his decision while the agency appeals.

U.S. District Judge Edward W. Nottingham in Denver warned the government that by involving the FCC it could face more legal action for "trying to skirt the order." He said that he clearly prohibited the FTC from operating the registry and that the law prevents any indirect actions to get around that.

The list of more than 50-million telephone numbers registered by people who don't want to hear from telemarketers is scheduled to go into effect Wednesday. The public is being encouraged to continue signing up for the service, and many telemarketers plan to respect the wishes of those on the list even while legal questions remain.

"One of the things we all need to do is take a deep breath," FCC chairman Michael Powell said. "What you've got is virtually everyone in federal government here working to leave no avenue unexhausted to make sure the list works as fully as legally possible."

Prompted by two court rulings last week favoring telemarketers, seemingly every elected official in Washington has sought to show a commitment to the do-not-call list. Republicans and Democrats in Congress joined forces to pass a bill in near-record speed last week and President Bush signed it Monday.

The measure gives explicit authority to the FTC to set up and operate the do-not-call list, a distinction made moot by a court order that came down after Congress acted. Bush did not mention that.

"The public is understandably losing patience with these unwanted phone calls, unwanted intrusions," he said at a ceremony. "Given a choice, Americans prefer not to receive random sales pitches at all hours of the day. The American people should be free to restrict these calls."

About the same time that Congress passed the bill Thursday, Nottingham in Denver ruled the do-not-call list unconstitutional on free-speech grounds because it applied to calls from businesses but not charities. That decision blocked the FTC from enforcing the list.

Another court decision left the FCC free to act. A three-judge panel of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday denied a request from telemarketers to block the FCC's role.

On Monday, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer refused to block that decision, but telemarketers could renew their request with another justice. If the Supreme Court grants the request to suspend the FCC's rules, both agencies would be blocked from enforcing the list.

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