Hello. This is a message from... FCC Issues Ruling on School "Robocalls"

By Attorney Sean A. Fields, Co-chair of the School Law Group

School Law Snapshot

The Big Picture...

Unless you happen to fall within the shrinking minority of Americans who do not use a cellphone, you have probably received a telemarketing robocall that promises a Florida vacation or an opportunity to pursue a new career that will make you rich within six months. While such calls have become a common nuisance in our everyday lives, the use of automated calls or "robocalls" by school entities has become a common, convenient way for schools to send out announcements regarding matters that range from routine notifications about school events to updates about school emergencies.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Declaratory Ruling that provides important guidelines for schools related to a school's use of robocalls and automated texts under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

The FCC's ruling establishes the following guidelines for schools.

  • Schools are permitted to use automated calls or text messages without consent for an "emergency purpose" under federal law. The examples point to situations that might implicate the health and safety of students, faculty and other school staff members.
  • The use of non-emergency automated or prerecorded calls requires the "prior express consent" of the parent, guardian or student that is being called.Permissible non-emergency calls include communications that are closely related to the educational mission of the school or to official school activities.

The Close Up...

The FCC's Declaratory Ruling issued on August 4, provides clarification regarding the use of automated or prerecorded calls and compliance with the TCPA, a federal law, that prohibits the use of telemarketing calls using an artificial or prerecorded voice to residential telephones without prior express consent to make non-emergency calls. The law specifically provides an exemption for calls made for emergency purposes.

Emergency Calls

Although, the FCC's ruling clarifies that the use of automated or prerecorded calls is permitted for an emergency purpose, the mere fact that a call comes from a school does not bring the call within the emergency purpose exception. Examples of applicable emergency calls include messages relating to weather closures, threats of imminent danger to the school due to fire, dangerous persons, health risks and unexcused absences. The examples point to situations that implicate the health and safety of students, faculty and other school staff members. Although calls made for an emergency purpose may be made without express prior consent, the FCC recommends that schools regularly update their emergency calling lists to ensure emergency calls actually reach the intended individuals.

Non-Emergency Calls

Automated calls made for purposes that do not affect a health and safety concern require the express permission of a parent, guardian or student. For example, the FCC opined there is no reasonable health or safety concern implicated by a notification regarding an upcoming teacher conference or general school activity. However, when a parent or guardian has provided prior consent the school is permitted to send communications that are closely related to the educational mission of the school or official school activities. A parent, guardian or student who provides their wireless phone number to a school as a contact has provided permission to be called for those purposes. However, that permission does not extend to non-school community events. Therefore, the FCC encourages schools to disclose the full range of potential calls and messages that parents, guardians or students would receive as a result of providing contact information.

Taking it Back

Finally, the FCC stated that individuals have the right to revoke prior consent to receive calls. Therefore, schools should be prepared to honor requests from individuals who no longer wish to receive non-emergency calls or text messages from a school. The use of automated phone calls will continue to be an effective means of communicating with the school community as long those calls are managed in compliance with federal law.