Does a debt collection agency have a First Amendment right to place the acronym "WWJD" at the top of its letterhead?
That's going to be an issue in a federal lawsuit filed against the Bullseye Collection Agency of Minnesota.
A Minnesota couple is suing a debt collection agency for putting the initials “WWJD” on its collection letters, arguing that it breaks an anti-harassment law by portraying debtors as hell-bound sinners.
Sara and Mark Neill of Becker, Minn., received three letters from Bullseye Collection Agency, Inc. in 2008 with the letters “WWJD”—an acronym commonly understood to mean “What Would Jesus Do?”—printed in the upper right-hand corner.
The suit seems to me to be a real stretch. While it is indisputably tacky, tasteless, and offensive to use language which seems calculated to remind a debtor that "Jesus would call us to negotiate an installment plan on this overdue bill…" the actual text of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act states:
A debt collector may not engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.
And goes on to prohibit:
The use of obscene or profane language or language the natural consequence of which is to abuse the hearer or reader.
No other part of the Act would apply here. While debt collection is a heavily (some say not heavily enough) regulated industry, and the First Amendment's protection for commercial speech (which is what debt collection is) is less stringent than that for political or religious speech, the court reviewing this case will have to work from the text of the Act Congress wrote.
And I don't think a clear case can be made that, whatever these plaintiffs felt on receiving the letter, the term "WWJD?" is harassing, oppressive, obscene or profane (in an irreligious sense – in a religious sense, invoking Jesus on a debt collection letter is blasphemy), or that the natural consequence of reading it is abuse.
Of course the most comical aspect is that Bullseye's attorney, in the first report I could find on this story, seemed ashamed of what his client was doing, as though Bullseye didn't clearly mean to ask deadbeats to man up and pay up, just like Jesus Christ:
The “WWJD” is standard on Bullseye letterhead and is “the furthest thing possible from harassment,” he said.
“It’s not like it’s a fish symbol or specific Christian statement; it can be interpreted in a lot of different ways,” Staver said.
What Would Jason from Friday the Thirteenth Do?
When Will Jon and Kate Gosselin Divorce?
Now that the case has gone further, and Bullseye's motion to dismiss for failure to state a valid claim has been denied, the lawyer has manned up and stated that, yes, his client does have a First Amendment right to stamp WWJD on the letterhead, and any act of Congress that prohibits that is unconstitutional infringement of religious freedom.
Which is wrong as well. Clearly a debt collector couldn't publish the text of say, Hebrews 10: 30-31 on its letterhead:
30For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.
31It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Or for that matter Sura 69 of the Koran, which teaches us:
We shall say: 'Lay hold of him and bind him. Burn him in the fire of Hell, then fasten him with a chain seventy cubits long. For he did not believe Allah the tremendous, and urged not on the feeding of the wretched. Today he shall be friendless here; filth shall be his food, the filth which sinners eat.
Fortunately for Bullseye, while its tactics seem sleazy to me, this is a simpler case. The court will never need to reach the Constitutional issue. WWJD in the context of a collection letter is not naturally harassing, degrading, profane, oppressive, etc. The suit will probably run through discovery, to be dismissed at summary judgment.
For a more neutral view of the case, see this post from Religion Clause in May.