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High court backs canvassers' rights

Justices strike down law requiring permit

Associated Press

WASHINGTON | The Constitution guarantees religious groups, politicians, Girl Scouts and others the right to knock on their neighbors’ doors without stopping at town hall for permission, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a broad endorsement of free-speech rights.

By a vote of 8-1, the high court struck down an Ohio village’s law that required anyone going door to door to register with authorities and carry a permit. Violators could be fined $100.

‘‘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,’’ Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

The mayor of the tiny Stratton, population 287, said the law was intended to protect elderly residents against flimflam artists or pesky salesmen. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion mandates doorstep proselytizing, objected, saying the law was largely aimed at keeping them out of town. Stratton Village Solicitor Frank Bruzzese defended the law, saying it was ‘‘narrowly drawn to regulate only entry onto private property.’’ Town leaders said they are still evaluating their next step.

Monday’s case 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. Monday’s ruling extends that right to door-to-door soliciting for other causes.

[From the Dayton Daily News: 06.18.2002]

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