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FCC Seeks Comment on What 'Emergency' Means for School Mass Notifications

Can schools and colleges consider every mass notification they send out an "emergency?" That's the question at the heart of a request filed with the Federal Communications Commission by Blackboard.

The education technology company, which sells the Blackboard Connect mass notification service, argues that Congress intended for the emergency purposes exception in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to be interpreted broadly, and that "all school-initiated informational messages should be considered sent for 'emergency purposes.'"

If the FCC does decide those communications are made for "emergency purposes" — even if they're alerts regarding more mundane activities such as event scheduling or weather closures — the assumption is that the recipients of the calls have given "prior express consent" to receive them on their wireless phones.

The education technology company, which sells the Blackboard Connect mass notification service, is seeking a "declaratory ruling" that such contacts don't conflict with the TCPA or other FCC rules because the calls are "informational, non-commercial, nonadvertising, and non-telemarketing."

What the petition is trying to waylay is the prospect of class-action suits that threaten the service and others like it. If that argument doesn't succeed, Blackboard's fallback position is that those calls are still allowed, even in the case where the notification has ended up going to a phone number that has been reassigned by the wireless carrier without anybody notifying the notification service or the school.

As a call by the FCC for public commentary lays out the case, Blackboard considers its Connect calls, which are delivered by autodial and the use of prerecorded messages, to be made for emergency purposes. That makes those calls "permissible under the Commission's rules without the recipient's prior express consent," even when the recipient no longer has that phone number.

In recent months, the company stated in its petition, it has been "subjected to several private actions initiated by consumers who allege they have received education-related prerecorded messages on their wireless devices in error." These calls can happen for a number of reasons, Blackboard noted: due to the disconnection and reassignment of a phone number by the carrier; the recipient may have decided to forward calls to a new phone number; or there may have been a "good faith error" that has occurred "without the knowledge of the school (or Blackboard)."

Fines for violating the regulations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) are harsh: $500 per violation. And it isn't just the company providing the service that could end up paying. According to national law firm Ballard Spahr, "educational organizations that send text messages or make prerecorded calls to parents and students" could also be at risk of breaking the law. Ballard Spahr, which advises clients on matters related to TCPA, is encouraging schools to submit comments supporting the petition.

Comments are due by April 22, 2015.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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