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High court throws out law barring door-to-door solicitation

By The Associated Press

06.17.02

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WASHINGTON — The Constitution protects the right of missionaries, politicians and others to knock on doors without first getting permission from local authorities, the Supreme Court ruled today.

The court struck down a local law that leaders of a small Ohio town said was meant to protect elderly residents from being bothered at home — a law challenged by the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion calls for doorstep proselytizing.

In the doorstep-solicitation case, by a vote of 8 to 1, the court reasoned that the First Amendment right to free speech includes the entitlement to take a message directly to someone's door, and that the right cannot be limited by a requirement to register by name ahead of time.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 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 mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

"It is offensive, not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society, that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so."

Two of the court's most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, agreed with the outcome of the case but did not sign on to Stevens' reasoning.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the court got it right.

"It seems that the court has simply said once again that you shouldn't have to get the government's permission to spread your views," Lynn said.

"People have the right not to listen or to close their doors, but the government is not supposed to be in that door-closing business."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 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.

Stratton, Ohio, required a permit for any door-to-door soliciting by salespeople or anyone else. Theoretically, Girl Scouts would have to get such a permit to sell cookies, as would a candidate for the school board or a student raising money for a class trip.

The majority in today's case said the law was too broad. Had it been much more narrowly written to guard against unwanted sales calls, it might have withstood constitutional scrutiny, Stevens wrote.

People who do not want to listen to a political candidate or other canvasser need not do so, the court said. Residents may post a "No Solicitations" sign at the door, or simply refuse to engage in conversation.

The court also rejected the town's claim that the law helped prevent crime. There is no evidence that a criminal casing a neighborhood would be deterred by the need to get a permit, the court said.

The case, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton, Ohio, turned in part on the notion of anonymity when speaking one's mind.

The court already has held that the Constitution gives people the right to anonymously distribute campaign literature. Today's ruling extends that right to door-to-door soliciting for other causes.

The church argued that it needs no one's permission to pursue what it views as its mission to take religion to people's homes. Someone going door to door may choose to introduce himself, but should not be required to do so, the church argued.

Two lower federal courts found the permit rules evenhanded, and the church appealed. The Supreme Court reversed, and sent the case back to a lower court.

Rehnquist's dissent mentioned the killings of two university professors in New Hampshire, allegedly by men who had cased the neighborhood by going door to door.

Stratton's law was intended to address such "very grave risks associated with canvassing," and did not unduly limit free speech, Rehnquist wrote.

Stratton, population 287, includes many retirees who were sick of being pestered by Jehovah's Witnesses and others, the town's mayor has said.

Village Solicitor Frank Bruzzese said the town law was "narrowly drawn to regulate only entry onto private property."

He interpreted the court's decision as permission for a canvasser to enter private property without the homeowner's consent, so long as the canvasser's intent was to exercise a free-speech right.

"If that's what it means, I guess we'll all have to live with it," he said.

The town has had a testy history with the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in nearby Wellsville.

The ordinance requires anyone who wants to go door to door to first go to the mayor's office and fill out a permit application. The form requires a name and other identifying information, and is kept on file. There is no fee.

About 15 people have applied for permits since the law took effect, and no one has been turned away. Jehovah's Witnesses did not apply, because they considered the permit unconstitutional.

The church won victories in the 1930s and 1940s that have helped form the court's modern interpretation of the First Amendment.

Stevens took note of the World War II-era cases, saying they repeatedly saved Jehovah's Witnesses "from petty prosecutions."

"The value judgment that then motivated a united democratic people fighting to defend those very freedoms from totalitarian attack is unchanged. It motivates our decision today," Stevens wrote.

Previous

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

Related

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

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

Supreme Court again finds itself on side of Jehovah's Witnesses
Analysis Ruling in Ohio case strongly affirms value of anonymous, unregulated and unpopular speech.  06.18.02

Environmental group protests soliciting rules
Michigan town officials adopt ordinance limiting solicitors to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., or sunset, whichever comes first.  09.14.02

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