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Church's door-to-door solicitation case comes calling at high court

By The Associated Press

02.26.02

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In a case pitting the right to privacy against the right to proselytize, the U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments today on an Ohio town's ordinance that forces solicitors to get permission before they knock on any doors.

First Amendment experts say the court must balance two legal rights it historically has protected — the privacy of homeowners and the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses to practice their faith.

"What this case has done is put against each other two different branches of judicial history," said Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech in Charlottesville, Va. "That's what makes it interesting and novel."

A 1998 ordinance requires all solicitors to register with Stratton officials and receive a permit, which must be presented on request. Solicitors also must avoid homes where residents have "no solicitation" requests on file with the village. Violators can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Officials in the blue-collar community of about 287 people say solicitors are treated equally while residents are protected from fraud and harassment. Jehovah's Witnesses say they are being targeted and that their free-speech rights are being violated.

"We treat everyone equally. You come in, you sign, and you go about your business," said Mayor John Abdalla. "I'm not picking on Jehovah's Witnesses. If they want come in, they can. They just have to follow the rules on the books."

Abdalla said he pushed for the ordinance after residents' complaints about out-of-towners selling beef out of freezers in the back of their pickup trucks and people peddling perfume and sweepers after dark.

Village leaders said permits are free, and nobody has ever been denied one. The ordinance is reasonable in "weighing the First Amendment rights of canvassers against the right of homeowners to security, privacy and peacefulness in their homes," they told the Supreme Court.

But the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. and an affiliated Jehovah's Witness congregation in nearby Wellsville sued in federal court.

"In court testimony, it was clear we were one of the groups targeted for exclusion," said Philip Brumley, an attorney representing the Jehovah's Witnesses. "The permit is a prior restraint. It's sophisticated prejudice."

Lawyers for the church contend that Jehovah's Witnesses need no one's permission to take their case directly to other's doorsteps.

"Although the free one-on-one exchange of ideas is a pillar of our democracy, Stratton has devalued both the constitutional right of speakers to express information and the constitutional right of residents to receive it if they so choose," lawyers for the church wrote in a court filing.

Mormons, Independent Baptist Churches of America, Gun Owners of America and the American Civil Liberties Union are among more than a dozen organizations that signed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the church.

The National League of Cities and other municipal representatives back Stratton.

In 1999, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. ruled the ordinance did not discriminate against the religious group. But Sargus also ordered the village to delete the name of the group from a no solicitation list that residents can fill out and file with village officials.

The judge said the village could not limit activity from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as it had attempted to do.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld Sargus' ruling last year.

The Jehovah's Witnesses appealed, sending the case to the Supreme Court.

The justices are expected to rule by July on the First Amendment ramifications of requiring approval for all door-to-door advocacy, including political pamphleteering.

Going door-to-door to distribute literature and recruit members is at the core of the Jehovah's Witness faith, but members of the group have not solicited in Stratton since the ordinance took effect.

"It's not to obtain anything but a listening ear, to read a few scriptures and move on," Brumley said. "It's not our desire to foist ourselves on unwilling listeners."

The Jehovah's Witnesses have a storied history at the Supreme Court. The Christian denomination has brought more than two dozen high court cases, including some that helped establish broad protections for religious and political speech.

David Goldberger, a law professor at Ohio State University, said the Supreme Court has held in earlier cases that the government couldn't impose solicitation limits on Jehovah's Witnesses because residents could shut their doors or post no trespassing signs.

Today's case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton, Ohio.

Updates

Villagers praise contested peddling-permit law
Residents of other small towns watch with interest to see how Jehovah's Witnesses' challenge to Stratton, Ohio, ordinance fares in U.S. Supreme Court.  06.10.02

High court appears ready to topple 2 laws that restrict speech
Analysis Justices hear two free-speech cases: one from Jehovah's Witnesses challenging town's anti-solicitation ordinance, other from druggists seeking to advertise special compounds.  02.27.02

Previous

High court to hear Jehovah's Witnesses case
Analysis Challenge to Ohio village’s door-to-door solicitation statute could result in ruling on the extent to which First Amendment protects anonymous speech.  10.16.01

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

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