Among the life lessons in the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” are: don’t hit people, clean up your own mess, flush the toilet and play fair. “Whether you are 5 or 17, no one likes to be cheated, stolen from, lied to or taken advantage of,” wrote its author, Robert Fulghum. Too bad some fraudulent telemarketers regularly forget this, as hardly a week goes by without some settlement being announced. So why did it take the U.S. Supreme Court to come up with this not-very-profound statement in Madigan v. Telemarketing Associates: “The First Amendment does not shield fraud”? Or, basically, if you lie, you should be held accountable.
The justices acknowledged that fundraising costs can run very high. However, freedom of speech and deception are two very different things, and the justices rightly focused on the organization allegedly misleading the public. High costs alone don’t constitute fraud, and it would be impossible to come up with a fundraising cost ratio to gauge a charity’s legitimacy or ethical standing. Now, the case heads back to a lower court so the state of Illinois can attempt to prove that Telemarketing Associates made specific misrepresentations.
Though the ruling favors the nonprofit industry in many ways, the reaction in media outlets had a different take: “Lies for Charity Not Protected,” “Deceptive Talk Carries a Price,” “Court Targets Lying Telemarketers,” “No Lies, Court Tells Charity Callers” and “Court: Fundraisers Can’t Lie.” And The Associated Press started its story with the obligatory (and seemingly mandatory): “It won’t stop those annoying calls at dinnertime, but …” God forbid they forget to use that.
But Wait, There’s More
Next time you turn on the TV late one night, don’t be surprised if you see Vin Gupta selling DVDs after that rotisserie oven infomercial from Ron Popeil. Yes, infoUSA is offering two database products through direct response TV, hoping to attract the country’s 20 million entrepreneurs and small office professionals who (I guess) can’t sleep at night. Seems like the names — Business Sales Leads and Mailing Lists and Consumer Sales Leads and Mailing Lists — need some jazzing up to join the Body Flexes and Handy Hook Mirrors of the DRTV world. But will they slice and dice, too?