RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday upheld a $1 million civil verdict against a political consultant responsible for illegal automated telephone calls in the 2010 Maryland governor’s race.
A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected Julius Henson’s bid to overturn last year’s decision by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake.
Henson and his company, Universal Elections Inc., sent an automated phone message on behalf of Republican candidate Robert Ehrlich to more than 112,000 Democratic voters in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, which have large black populations. It sought to suppress turnout in the closing hours of election day by telling listeners to “relax” because Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and President Barack Obama had already won.
The message did not identify Ehrlich’s campaign as the party that initiated the so-called “robocalls.” The state sued, claiming that omission violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Blake agreed and imposed the $1 million verdict against Henson and his company and a $10,000 judgment against employee Rhonda Russell, who recorded the calls.
Henson argued on appeal that the application of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to robocalls is an unconstitutional restraint on political speech. The appeals court disagreed, ruling that the restrictions are content-neutral and that the disclosure requirement serves an important government interest by deterring misleading calls.
Henson also was convicted of conspiring to send the automated calls. He was sentenced to one year in jail with all but 60 days suspended.
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