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Junk fax ruling may help antispam effort

A federal appeals court says a law restricting junk faxes does not violate the Constitution, setting a precedent that favors legal attempts to restrict unsolicited e-mail.

WASHINGTON--A federal appeals court said Friday that a law restricting junk faxes was constitutional, setting a precedent that favors legal attempts to restrict unsolicited e-mail.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's ruling, concluding that a 1991 federal law banning unsolicited fax advertising did not violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression.

Congress's goal of "restricting unsolicited fax advertisements in order to prevent the cost shifting and interference such unwanted advertising places on the recipient" was reasonable, a three-judge panel ruled.

The decision could be important in the growing legal tussles over spam.

If the lower court's year-old decision had been upheld, it would have showed that at least one federal appeals court took a dim view of the approach used by some antispam laws. A junk fax typically costs the recipient more and is more intrusive than a single piece of junk e-mail, and receiving a fax ties up a phone line.

The appeals panel also stressed that the law reasonably tried to combat the "cost-shifting" that happens when unsolicited faxes consume a recipient's ink, toner, and paper--an economic argument that mirrors that made against bulk unsolicited e-mail.

Foes of spam point out that it forces companies to spend money on filters, buy larger hard drives to store incoming e-mail and lease fatter connections to handle the deluge.

Ray Everett-Church, a privacy consultant at and a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, applauded the decision.

"It certainly reinforces the argument that many have made for a long time, which is that federal regulations banning unsolicited e-mail could be held constitutional," Everett-Church said. "The cost involved in shifting the advertising cost from sender to recipient is a substantial government interest--a regulation restricting unsolicited advertising could be enacted constitutionally."

The federal law at issue in this case, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), bans using "any telephone facsimile machine, computer, or other device to send an unsolicited advertisement to a telephone facsimile machine."

The case arose out of a lawsuit brought by the State of Missouri against American Blast Fax and, which charge clients to send unsolicited advertisements to potential customers. The two companies argued the TCPA was unconstitutional because of a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that extended limited First Amendment protections to commercial speech.

Many states have enacted antispam laws, but the U.S. Congress never has. Even if state antispam laws are acceptable under the First Amendment, some courts have said they may run afoul of the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.

A spokesman for could not be reached for comment. A representative said the company shut down early on Friday because of the U.S. war against Iraq.