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A move to make mealtime safe from phone calls

Tonight, sometime in the hours after 5 p.m., an increasingly commonplace ritual will take place in dining and family rooms all over America.

1. Grace (" ... we thank thee for this food. Amen.");

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2. Gentle conversation ("How was your day? Please pass the peas"); and

3. Telephone (or doorbell): "Brnnnnnnng!! Hello, I'm from SATC (Super Annoying Telemarketing Corp.) with a one-time offer that could save you hundreds if you order in the next 3 minutes. Have I caught you at a bad time?"

Now, driven by citizen complaints that enough is enough, several moves are afoot to protect the sanctity of the American evening from such marketing intrusions. In Arizona, a law went into effect this month prohibiting telemarketers from calling homes from 5 to 7 p.m.

Legislation introduced earlier this month in Congress would ban interstate calls by telemarketers during those same hours. And in Longmeadow, Mass., officials recently banned door-to-door canvassing after 8 p.m.

As telemarketing and advocacy groups fight such legislation, claiming fundamental freedoms of free speech, part of the debate rages over whether what some call "the sanctity of the American dinner hour" is now an imaginary vestige of the country's Norman Rockwell past. Chiseled away in recent years by social changes ranging from women in the workplace and hyper-scheduled kids to the fast-food revolution, the traditional dinner hour, they claim, is a thing of the past.

In the middle, federal and local legislators try to respond with a sense of balance.

"For many families, the dinner hour is the only time they have together, and they should be allowed to enjoy it," says Rep. Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona, sponsor of the Don't Disturb My Dinner Act. Mr. Salmon expects consumer groups and the American Association of Retired Persons to push the bill through by the end of 2000.

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"As a father of four, I get very guarded about my time with my children," he says. "The only time I can guarantee we can be together is dinner time."

The sentiment is echoed in the Massachusetts town of Longmeadow, where a vote to ban door-to-door canvassing is being challenged in federal court. "People here were just growing weary of people showing up at their doors at all hours of the evening," says town administrator Julia Whitlock. "They were overwhelmed and wanted to put a stop to it."

Telemarketers and advocacy groups counter that evening hours are the best time to solicit because that is when most people are home. "Between 8 and 9 [p.m.] is our real key time," says Christopher Bathurst of the Northampton, Mass., office of Clean Water Action, a nonprofit group that is challenging the Longmeadow law. "If we're stripped away of that one hour, that's a huge percentage hit."

For their part, sociologists and other analysts say that while quality time between family members is desirable, dinnertime may no longer be a reliable time to do it. A ritual born of economic necessity in the agrarian 1800s, the nightly gathering is almost obsolete, they say.

Recent studies reflect the transition from the 1950s, when most families dined together five to seven nights per week. Today, with so many family members eating on the run and heading to more activities, the number has fallen to one or two nights a week.

"The rhythms of public and private life used to reflect a symmetry that was complementary to each other," says Jan Dizard, professor of American studies and sociology at Amherst College in Massachusetts and author of "The Minimal Family," a book on changing American family life. "Now they are both stroboscopic, with lights flashing all day. So declaring 5 to 7 p.m. as sacrosanct, while touching and well-intentioned, seems not likely to be possible or efficacious, even though it might be a relief."

Regardless of such comments, the Arizona law was put into effect primarily to appease hundreds of complainants who said telemarketing calls were coming with such a frequency that citizens were beyond annoyed - they were unable to cope.

"We hear from people all over the state that this is something that particularly irritates them, especially during dinner and from telemarketers who don't take no for an answer," says Constance Copeland, business services director for Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless. "This law is meant to prevent such harassment."

Besides banning calls from 5 to 7 p.m., the Arizona law prohibits telemarketers from blocking their phone numbers from readout devices that consumers buy to identify callers. It limits automated random dialing and bans pre-recorded messages being delivered without the consumer's prior consent.

Such checks are expected to hold down fraud in this heavy retirement state, which has lost $100 million to telemarketing fraud since 1994. The average victim, says the FBI, is a retiree losing $20,000 to $100,000.

Court challenges are expected in some states if the federal version of the Arizona law passes. The law will not prevent all telemarketing calls during the dinner hours, only ones that cross state lines.

In the Longmeadow case, the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union is holding that the anticanvassing law is unconstitutional.

"What is at issue here is not just one hour," says ACLU lawyer William Newman, who represents Clean Water Action in the suit. "It's the crucial hour. This dismissiveness of First Amendment rights is really troubling."

Whatever happens with such laws, sociologists say Americans still must come to grips with a consumerism that is encroaching into every corner of society.

"The last half of the 20th century has brought us a revolution in American life through the spiral of technology," says Robert Thompson, a cultural sociologist at Syracuse University in New York. "The first half of the 21st century will be about learning to live with these innovations."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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