The right of the called

TELEPHONE answering machines may lack the personal touch of a direct conversation, but at least they are a convenience that benefits both parties. Not so with some varieties of another mechanical device: This one automatically dials a potential customer's phone and is capable of delivering a lengthy, mechanized sales message that in some cases will not stop until the recording finishes.

The more sophisticated and costly variations do click off when the person called hangs up. The common version keeps the patter going, whether or not a listener is there. Some people who have hung up on the messages have found to their dismay, particularly in emergencies, that the seller is still talking when they try to get a new dial tone. Yet, ironically, even the cheap models are programmed to turn off if an answering machine should pick up at the other end.

A flat ban on automatic dialing devices with their recorded messages may be deemed an infringement of free-speech rights. Also, many welcome the information: One of every 14 among the millions of Americans called each day by automatic dialers decides to buy, according to industry estimates. But the decision by any telephone user to put down the receiver should not prevent access to a free line.

More than 20 states have adopted restrictions, usually a tight time limit on how long the message may continue after a phone has been hung up. More states should follow suit. Call it the right of the called.

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