Company ignores FCC inquiry, receives only a warning

Let’s say you are part of an industry under FCC regulation. The FCC sends you an order telling you to provide certain information. Suppose you ignore that order. What happens next? Jack-booted federal thugs at your door? Black government helicopters circling your business? At least a letter imposing a fine?

None of those, it turns out. In fact, not much happens at all, the first time you blow off the FCC. Unless you hold some kind of FCC license or authorization, or do something that requires a license or authorization you don’t have, you can ignore the FCC with impunity – once.

Consider the experience of CallingPost Communications, Inc. The FCC sent the company a letter asking about its use of automatic dialing equipment and possible Do-Not-Call violations. Ordinarily these letters require an answer, supported by affidavit, within 30 days. The president of the company explained he was “absolutely swamped.” The FCC graciously gave him two extensions of time for a total of almost four months. In the end, though, CallingPost simply did not answer.

The FCC’s response? A stern warning telling CallingPost it better not ignore the FCC again, because next time the FCC might impose a fine. That was it.

We reported once about a company that got off with a similar warning after what appeared to be a blatant lie to the FCC. The FCC’s problem in the CallingPost case is the same as back then: unless the offender is a licensee, or the offense consists of an action that requires a license (such as operating a pirate radio station), the FCC cannot impose a penalty unless it first issues an official warning called a “citation” and then waits for the recipient to re-offend.

This rule is doubtless meant to protect parties who, not being current on FCC regulations, may stumble inadvertently into a violation – a retail store, for example, that unwittingly sells a product out of compliance with FCC rules. In those contexts, the rule makes sense. There is nothing unwitting, though, about failing to answer an official letter, or answering with a falsehood.

As lawyers, we believe in respect for the law. We advise our clients to comply with the rules, answer the mail, tell the truth. FCC actions like the CallingPost case make our job harder. “Why should I bother responding to the FCC?” clients will ask. “I get one free pass, right?”

We wish Congress and the FCC would fix the rules to require a reasonably prompt – and truthful – response to FCC inquires the first time out. Or else let us similarly toss out communications from the government, the next time we get a speed-camera ticket in the mail.