Verizon Comes Close to Obstructing Political Speech and Activism

The New York Times first reported that Verizon Wireless rejected a request from NARAL Pro-Choice America to use Verizon's mobile network for a text-message campaign. Verizon held that, "it had the right to block 'controversial or unsavory' text messages" while the other wireless carriers accepted the program. Text messaging is increasingly being used as a powerful tool by political candidates and various advocacy campaigns. Supporters can be informed of various updates, calls to action, or even reminders to vote. "But legal experts said private companies like Verizon probably have the legal right to decide which messages to carry. The laws that forbid common carriers from interfering with voice transmissions on ordinary phone lines do not apply to text messages." "In turning down the program, Verizon . . . told Naral that it does not accept programs from any group 'that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.'" Now it turns out that Verizon will allow NARAL to use its network. "The decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect, and we have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident," Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, said in a statement." After Verizon reversed its policy Nancy Keenan, NARAL's president, issued a press release saying, "Let's hope Verizon has learned a lesson today: citizen participation in democracy is neither 'unsavory' nor 'controversial.'" Bob Bauer at draws together recent occasions where issue advertising has come under heavy scrutiny; the ad, the Wisconsin Right to Life Supreme Court ruling, and now Verizon. "It is a question really making the rounds these days: who will be heard on an issue, or denied?" "While Wisconsin Right to Life, other nonprofits and the unions resist government restraints on their speech, large companies with control over communications channels can influence access and volume with large consequence for the quality of debate." And see this NPAction story on using cell phones in advocacy.
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