Legal landscape

[ Legal 'nerd' warning: There is lots of dry legal discussion in this section, but the laws and subsequent Supreme Court cases have been written in very understandable terms, and hence we'd recommend anyone to read up and stick with it. ]


There are currently no existing laws on the book which establish a 'Do-not-Mail' registry, comparable to the well know 'Do-not-Call' program as instituted by the Federal Trade Commission (here). This is really remarkable, since mail, and delivery of mail is almost as old as the United States itself. Mail is less intrusive to many as there are no bells and whistles going off when delivered. Furthermore mail is typically delivered into a mailbox outside someone's house, so unless one makes a trip to the mailbox, one would not even know that there is in fact mail to be picked up at all.

This does not mean its impossible for an addressee to control mail delivery. As we will see, addressees in fact have full control over the delivery of their mail, and ultimately it's the addressee's sole discretion as to which mail pieces to receive, and which mail pieces to refuse.

This inherit 'right' follows from Supreme Court rulings in cases dealing with free speech and the right to privacy, and from rules & regulations of the USPS itself. We will see, that while there is no mandated 'Do-Not-Mail' program, through other laws and regulations every addressee (and only an addressee) can in fact enact his/her own 'Do-not-Mail 'registry' simply by asserting those rights.

While there is currently no 'Do-not-Mail' law on the books, it's interesting to note that there are many laws in place with the same aim, namely to shield an unwilling participant/recipient from unwanted and undesired solicitations.

Most of these have an 'opt-in' nature, i.e. you must take an affirmative action to NOT be called, texted or tracked.

Consider the following list and notice that a Do-not-Mail law is sorely missing:

  • Do-not-Mail - Missing
  • Do-not-Collect ( Proposed, here )
  • Do-not-Call ("DNC", here )
  • Do-not-Text/FAX ("TCPA", here )
  • Do-not-Track ("DNT", here and here )
  • Do-not-Sell ("CCPA", here )
  • Do-not-Spam (Can-SPAM, here )
  • Do-not-Tresspass (here)
  • No-Solliciting (via Do-Not-Tresspass)

Remember: In the eternal fight between the 'Freedom of Speech' versus the 'Right to Privacy', the right to privacy always trumps freedom of speech.

Overview of the relevant laws, rules and regulations

United States Code

The laws of the US postal service are laid out in the "United States Code" ('the law') in Title 39 a.k.a 39 U.S.C (here). In sub chapters, those laws are further specified and categorized e.g. 'Definitions', 'Organization', etc. Specifically chapter 30 named 'Nonmailable matter' is of interest (here).

This chapter lays out what can, and cannot be mailed via the USPS. For instance, it is unlawful for a non-governmental entity to send solicitations that imply a federal government connection for the purchase of, or payment for, a product or service. In addition, the US Postal Service can prevent the use of the US mail system for the carrying out of a scheme for obtaining money or property through the mail by means of false representations, or of a lottery for the distribution of real or personal property.

Additionally, as part of the 39 U.S.C in chapter §3008, the USPS allows an addressee to opt out from 'pandering advertisements' through the mail. To this effect, the USPS makes form ps-1500: 'Application for Listing and/or Prohibitory Order" available (here, here) allowing an addressee to unsubscribe from a vendors mailing list.

Note that the prohibitory order specifically mentions 'unwanted sexually oriented advertising', however, subsequent Courts have held that it is the sole discretion of the addressee to decide if material is sexual in nature or not, effectively leaving it up to an addressee to determine if a mailer can send subsequent advertisements.

The laws governing criminality around mail, and mail delivery are laid out in 18 U.S.C Chapter 83 (here). These laws state that it is illegal to tamper with, destroy or prevent delivery of mail, including destruction of mailboxes (here, here, here and here)

United States Postal Regulations

In addition to the laws on the books, the USPS in fact regulates major aspects of mail and mail delivery itself. For domestic mail delivery, these regulations are laid out in the 'Domestic Mail Manual' known as 'DMM'. The DMM governs the mailing standards for the USPS and addresses issues like pricing, weight and size as well as how an addressee can control delivery of mail.

See further information about the Domestic Mail Manual here.

Relevant United States Supreme Court cases

There are many cases involving Free Speech and the Right to Privacy since they are frequently in conflict with each other. Over the years, the United States Supreme Court has heard many such cases and continues to do so till this day. The relevant cases for the discussion over the right to refuse unsolicited mail are relatively easy to read as they are hardly technical in nature.

We recommend everyone interest to read up on these landmark cases in the subsequent pages.

Rowan vs US Post Office Department (1970)

A case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that an addressee of postal mail has sole, complete, unfettered and nonrenewable discretion to decide whether he or she wishes to receive further material from a particular sender. In turn, that the sender does not have a constitutional right to send unwanted material into someone's home. It thus created a quasi-exception to free speech in cases where a person is held as a "captive audience".

Appellants, who are in the mail-order business, brought suit to enjoin the operation of 39 U.S.C. §4009 (now §3008), challenging its constitutionality.

    Martin vs City of Struthers (1943)

    This was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that a law prohibiting the distribution of handbills from door to door violated the First Amendment rights of a Jehovah's Witness, specifically their freedom of speech.The ruling deemed trespassing laws a better fit for the town imposing the ordinance.

    The court concluded: "This or any similar regulation leaves the decision as to whether distributors of literature may lawfully call at a home where it belongs: with the homeowner himself."

    Mainstream Marketing vs FTC (2003) [ Decided by the 10th Circuit Court ]

    In this case, two telemarketing firms (Mainstream Marketing Services, Inc. TMG Marketing, Inc.) and a trade group (American Teleservices Association) challenged the constitutionality of the FTC’s "Do Not Call Registry" (DNCR).

    The primary disputes in the Mainstream Marketing case are whether the FTC crafted the DNCR narrowly enough to adequately protect corporate telemarketers’ “commercial speech”, and whether the FTC’s failure to include non-commercial charitable organizations in the DNCR amounted to an unconstitutional “content-based” restriction on speech.

    The Tenth Circuit panel had no trouble finding that the FTC has a legitimate and substantial interest in protecting citizens’ privacy, or the right to be left alone in their own homes. Both Courts ruled that the government’s interest in protecting in-home privacy is sufficient to justify a restriction on speech.