Junk Mail Meets Democracy: How to Stop the Flow

The Do Not Call Registry opened in 2003 and has received more than 125 million telephone numbers from people who do not want their contact information sold to telemarketers. Three years later, Americans are still waiting for a simple, companion registry in order to reduce the quantity of unwanted junk mail from direct mailers.

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Although bills have been introduced in Missouri, Illinois, New York and California, and several other states have expressed interest in introducing similar bills in January, little is happening on a national level.

Meanwhile, every four months, an area the size of Rocky Mountain National Park is leveled in order to produce the 100 million trees worth of junk mail that invades the mailboxes of millions of Americans each year. This production and disposal of junk mail consumes more energy than 2.8 million cars and costs citizens and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars per year in collection and disposal fees.

Currently, the Center for a New American Dream is campaigning to create a national Do Not Junk Opt-Out Registry that is modeled after the widely popular Do Not Call Registry.

In a recent Our Planet commentary, E Publisher and Executive Editor Doug Moss explained that all direct mail isn"t necessarily "junk," and it would be detrimental to group them together. I couldn"t agree more. Americans need access to information in order to fully participate in our democracy. How many Americans are aware of the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the benefits of supporting fair-trade products, the gigantic environmental impact from producing one ounce of gold, or the differences between two candidates facing off in an election?

Some find direct mail useful and others don"t. A Do Not Junk opt-out registry would give everyone control over their private mailboxes. Like the Do Not Call Registry, the proposed Do Not Junk Registry could provide exemptions for political campaigns and charities (nonprofits) that aim to engage Americans" civic responsibilities. Although a corresponding consumer responsibility does not exist, companies that have an established business relationship with a resident would also be granted an exemption as they are under Do Not Call.

Existing Removal Tools

Still not convinced this is a good idea? Consider the following issues concerning privacy, the United States Postal Service (USPS) and existing removal tools.

All direct mailers will remove your name and address from their lists if you make the proper request, but contacting just one mailer (like the Direct Marketing Association), will not get you removed from all direct mail lists. You can create personal, automatically generated forms on the New American Dream website. After completing these forms, you"ll notice a substantial reduction in direct mail, but it won"t be eliminated completely because there isn"t a way to remove yourself from all lists.

U.S. Postal Service

It"s no secret that direct mail, also known as "Standard Mail (A)," generates a large portion of the USPS mailing revenue, but giving American citizens the option to opt out of direct mail doesn"t necessarily equate to less revenue. In fact, having a more refined list could generate additional mailing revenues as response rates increase, and small and medium-sized organizations may be able to afford the costs associated with direct mail.

Additionally, telemarketers are required to "scrub" their list of phone numbers with the Do Not Call Registry. To obtain the list of prohibited numbers, telemarketers pay a fee that goes toward registry maintenance. In January 2005, the Government Accountability Office (an independent, non-partisan government research office) released a report explaining that these fees have been properly adjusted to cover the costs of the registry operation.

If refined lists and maintenance fees cannot be adjusted to satisfy the USPS, perhaps the agency could offer registration as a premium service. Although most Americans would prefer free registration (especially since Do Not Call is free), there are most likely millions of Americans willing to pay a dollar or two a year to remove themselves from the direct mailers" lists and keep things running smoothly at the USPS. No one wants to see a neighborhood postal worker lose her job, force an entire office to close or reduce postal service.

Privacy Issues

I"m always amazed and appreciative when people contact me about our Do Not Junk campaign because they are concerned that we are intruding on the direct mailers" freedom of speech, evidence that in America there is at least some attempt to protect all freedoms for all people. However, in 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in Rowan vs. U.S. Postal Service that "a mailer"s right to communicate must stop at the mailbox of an unreceptive addressee." Although everyone has the freedom of speech, there is no requirement to listen.

Chief Justice Burger wrote for the majority opinion that "the Court has traditionally respected the right of a householder to bar, by order or notice, solicitors, hawkers and peddlers from his property…. [W]e see no basis for according the printed word or pictures a different or more preferred status because they are sent by mail. The ancient concept that ‘a man’s home is his castle’ into which ‘not even the king may enter’ has lost none of its vitality."

Do Not Call grabbed the national spotlight after more than 30 states passed bills that would create a state-wide registry. Hopefully, we"ll be able to use the foundation created by Do Not Call to create a national Do Not Junk Registry, too. Citizens have the right to post a "No Soliciting" sign on their doors, turn off the TV and radio when unwanted ads come on and sign up for the popular Do Not Call telemarketer registry. Shouldn’t we have the right to opt out of junk mail with an easy-to-use Do Not Junk registry?

STEVEN KRIEGER is the grassroots coordinator and community liaison for the Center for a New American Dream. He can be reached at steve@newdream.org.


Center for a New American Dream

CNAD Junk Mail site