Montana Editorial Roundup
Billings Gazette, Feb. 14, on protecting Montanans against robocalls:
Have you ever heard anyone wish to receive robocalls?
We’re talking about those unsolicited phone calls that always seem to arrive at dinnertime. The call interrupts our lives and there’s not even a human being on the line, just a recording.
Montana outlawed most robocalls back in 1991. But last year a Michigan political consulting company challenged that law, claiming it unconstitutionally prohibited political speech. In a 32-page ruling filed Friday in Helena, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell upheld Montana’s law.
His ruling is a victory for the right of privacy and to be protected from having unwanted automated phone calls.
Lovell’s ruling also clearly demonstrates that personal peace and privacy don’t necessarily conflict with freedom of political speech.
For Lovell, “the saving grace” in Montana law is that it allows robocalls so long as a real live operator first gets the call recipient’s permission. In other words, if the Michigan firm paid human beings to make political calls and to ask if the recipients want to hear the recorded message, the call would be legal under Montana law — if the recipient said yes.
Lovell wrote: “Statutory restrictions on robocalls are intended to preserve, not diminish, the private property owner’s control over his or her property and personal choices regarding receipt of communications, both of which are integral elements of residential privacy.
“Political speech is precious under the First Amendment. The prohibition here of the promotion of a political campaign must meet a high bar to survive this challenge. It does so on its face by exempting robocall use if the permission of the called party is obtained by a live operator before the recorded message is delivered.”
Attorney General Tim Fox and his staff deserve congratulations for protecting our privacy. “This ruling upholds the will of the people, and I’m proud of my team for successfully defending the law,” Fox said in a news release Monday.
This federal court decision reminds us that Montana law prohibits not just political robocalls, but a broader range of unsolicited automated phone calls. The statute provides:
(1) A person may not use an automated telephone system, device, or facsimile machine for the selection and dialing of telephone numbers and playing of recorded messages if a message is completed to the dialed number for the purpose of:
(a) offering goods or services for sale;
(b) conveying information on goods or services in soliciting sales or purchases;
(c) soliciting information;
(d) gathering data or statistics; or
(e) promoting a political campaign or any use related to a political campaign.
(2) This section does not prohibit the use of an automated telephone system, device, or facsimile machine described under subsection (1) for purposes of informing purchasers of the receipt, availability for delivery, delay in delivery, or other pertinent information on the status of any purchased goods or services, of responding to an inquiry initiated by any person, or of providing any other pertinent information when there is a preexisting business relationship. This section does not prohibit the use of an automated telephone system or device if the permission of the called party is obtained by a live operator before the recorded message is delivered.
Most Montanans will agree that this is a good, reasonable law. However, it hasn’t actually been enforced, even though it has been violated in every election season since it took effect - and violated for nonpolitical calls. As reported by Holly Michels in Tuesday’s Billings Gazette, violation of the state robocall statute is a criminal offense. The law provides that violations would be prosecuted in the county where the call was received, but no such prosecutions have been reported.
Now that Fox has successfully defended the law, we urge him to find a workable way to enforce it statewide. Then, Montanans will enjoy more of the peace and privacy our attorney general and lawmakers have aimed to protect.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Feb. 13, on the broader benefits of flu shots:
Despite strong recommendations from health care providers, about half of us fail to get a flu shot every year. But it’s not too late, and this flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory in Montana and throughout the nation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that hospitalizations for the disease were on the rise last week reaching 60 people out of every 100,000. In Montana, almost 500 people had been hospitalized at the beginning of February and 24 had died.
The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months get a flu shot every year. Many shrug the flu off as an inconvenience and don’t see any pressing reason to get the shot. But they need to think about others.
The flu kills an average of 36,000 people every year, about as many as die in car wrecks. The deaths mostly occur among infants, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. But those people catch the flu from someone else, someone who didn’t regard the risk as significant enough to get a shot. Deaths occur in retirement communities because someone visited there unaware they were carrying the flu virus. Likewise in hospitals and other care facilities. An infant in a private home can contract the disease from a sibling who brought the disease home from school.
The shots aren’t 100 percent effective and someone who gets a flu shot could still suffer a bout with the disease. But immunologists use the term “herd immunity” to describe the resistance to the spread of a disease in a population if a sufficiently high percentage of the population is immune to the disease. If the flu shot rate reaches 80 to 90 percent, the likelihood the spread of the disease will reach epidemic level decreases significantly.
The shots are available through pharmacies and health care providers for a nominal fee. Many insurance plans cover the shots with little or no cost to those covered.
The CDC reported last week the flu season is likely to continue for many weeks. If you didn’t get one already, consider getting a shot now — if not for yourself, for someone else who may be at a much greater risk from the disease.
Missoulian, Feb. 11, on food inspection service owing Montana meat processors more than an apology:
Montanans learned about alleged mistreatment of the state’s small meat processors by U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors months ago. The department has had more than enough time to investigate, make corrections and issue its findings to the public.
This hasn’t happened. Instead, those at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service appear to be waiting for the trouble to quietly fade away.
Montanans can’t allow that to happen — not so long as those at the source of the problem remain in positions of power over the very businesses whose owners made the complaints in the first place. It’s time to ramp up the pressure.
The push to force the FSIS to cooperate with an independent investigation and public disclosure of the investigation’s results got a major boost last December, when all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation signed a letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong expressing frustration with the department’s internal-only review and general lack of transparency.
A state legislative committee followed up last week with its own call for an independent review, voting to send a letter noting that “The public has a right to know how FSIS regulations are being implemented by both federal and state inspectors and whether these inspections are being done uniformly” and adding a request for a formal apology from FSIS to anyone wronged by its agents’ actions.
Montana has some 20 federally inspected meat processing plants and about twice as many state-inspected facilities, including a handful located in Missoula and western Montana. For these businesses to serve their customers to the best of their ability, state and federal inspectors must do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Yet according to some of these small-business owners, FSIS fell far short of that duty when it allowed one of its head inspectors in particular to coerce certain meat processors into purchasing unnecessary equipment and making other changes not actually required by federal law. These inspectors, remember, have the power to shut down facilities they find in violation of safety regulations.
Montana meat processors lost time and money trying to comply with these pointless orders. Those that pushed back and dared to complain about the treatment they say they experienced under front-line supervisor Dr. Jeffrey Legg felt they did so at the risk of retaliation against their businesses.
Bart Riley of Riley Meats in Butte is among those who contested the citations his facility received. He says his business became a target and was cited for violations of federal regulations that don’t exist.
Before 2005, Riley Meats, which had been in business for decades, didn’t have any problems with the inspection process. Then, Riley was told to make a number of changes, from replacing wood pallets with plastic ones and replacing metal walls with glass board to repairing a basement floor not used for meat processing and building an office. Riley says he spent $10,000 trying to comply with these “requirements” before he discovered they were unnecessary. He appealed the citations, many of which were eventually overturned, and started filing complaints of his own — against Legg.
Then, his business started accumulating non-compliance notices from inspectors. He was also told to provide certification for dubious issues, such as proof that his facility uses drinkable water. Of course it does — and in fact has been connected to the city water system for many years.
Some of Riley’s complaints were acknowledged but others weren’t. Meanwhile, other meat processors and inspectors went on record with reports of similar problems.
In 2008 — 10 years ago! — FSIS found at least some of these complaints substantiated, and then dropped the matter. As far as anyone outside the agency knows, no disciplinary action was ever taken, and no changes were ever made.
Thankfully, a series of news stories in the Montana Standard last September helped expose the situation, and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, wasted no time using their political clout to urge action.
That months have passed without response from the FSIS shows further action is needed. The USDA owes it to Montanans, and especially to our meat processing businesses, to provide information about any misconduct it has discovered and what steps it is taking to ensure Montana’s small business owners won’t continue to be mistreated.
Harassment and vindictive behavior by any government agency against any individual or business, in Montana or elsewhere, cannot be tolerated. Complaints of such behavior must be taken seriously and looked into right away, and corrective action must be taken and publicly announced to restore the public confidence in the institutions that act in our name.
Those in positions of authority who continue to demonstrate a pattern of harassment and retaliation should not be allowed to stay on the job. They should not retain the official authority to carry out personal vendettas against the people who brought their misconduct to light.
At this point, an outside review is absolutely warranted. That investigation should follow up on all allegations by small meat processors during Legg’s term of employment.
And a letter of apology from FSIS officials certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea. While it won’t make up for the anxiety, inconvenience and lost money suffered by folks like Riley, an apology would at least demonstrate the department’s understanding that these individuals have been wronged.
The FSIS owes them a detailed response to their complaints — and a promise that they won’t be wronged again.