The New York Times The New York Times National June 17, 2002  

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Door-to-Door Solicitors Do Not Need Prior Permission, Court Rules


WASHINGTON, June 17 The Supreme Court ruled today, in a case that pitted the Jehovah's Witnesses against a tiny Ohio community, that the Constitution protects people who go door-to-door to speak for various causes.

In an 8-to-1 ruling, the Court declared that an anti-solicitation ordinance passed by the Village of Stratton was so broad that it violated the First Amendment's safeguards against free speech.


Had the ordinance been more narrowly and specifically written, it might have withstood scrutiny, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. But it is clear, he said, that the statute does not just protect residents against aggressive fund-solicitors and salesmen but could be deployed against political campaigners, neighbors calling on neighbors to enlist support for a better garbage collector, even Halloween trick-or-treaters.

The ordinance in question required people going door-to-door to promote any product or "cause" to first obtain a permit from the mayor's office. Solicitors also had to respect any resident's sign shooing them away.

Officials and residents of the village of fewer than 300 residents, situated near the junction of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have argued that there is nothing onerous about their ordinance. They noted that no one has ever been denied a permit or been subject to the $100 fine that can be imposed for violations.

But the eight justices were not persuaded. "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 Stevens wrote.

Justice Stevens concluded that it does not matter that a permit can be obtained quickly and at no cost. The ordinance still amounts to "a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition," he wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the sole dissenter, said the "negligible burden" of getting a permit did not constitute a First Amendment violation. Moreover, he said, it has long been recognized that government may impose reasonable constraints on expression as long as specific views are not the target.

The chief justice said he was sympathetic to the village's goals: protecting the residents, particularly older people, from the flim-flam artists and potential burglars who could descend on the community and make a quick getaways on a busy state highway.

Quoting from an earlier ruling, Chief Justice Rehnquist added, "Great as is the value of exposing citizens to novel views, home is one place where a man ought to be able to shut himself up in his own ideas if he desires."

The case, which was heard by the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton, No. 00-1737. The opinions can be read on the Court's web site:

The high court's majority overturned rulings by a federal district court and by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, which had largely upheld the Stratton ordinance.

The provision allowing residents to post anti-solicitation signs was not challenged and remains intact.

It was no accident that the Jehovah's Witnesses were involved in the Ohio case, as they have been in several other free-speech disputes over the decades. The group's members believe it is their duty to proselytize. And the Ohio members never applied for a permit in Stratton; they believe their authority comes from God.

Notwithstanding its constitutional importance, the Stratton case has been marked by rich human drama and, occasionally, comedy.

Early on, the Jehovah's Witnesses complained of long-standing friction with village residents. The village mayor, John M. Abdalla, a retired boilermaker and owner of a tavern, denied that the 1998 ordinance was meant to pick on the religious group.

The real targets were pushy salesmen who tried to take advantage of villagers, the mayor insisted in an interview. "This is a small community, less than a mile long, with a lot of retired elderly who want to enjoy the rest of their life and not be bothered by these guys," he told an interviewer a few months ago. "People buzz in and buzz out from the four-lane highway. They come with fake Rolexes, fool's gold, and all the rest."

Mr. Abdalla listened to the Feb. 27 Supreme Court argument and fretted when some of the justices seemed to misunderstand the ordinance, at least from his perspective. He recalled Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's asking, "Do I have to get a permit to borrow a cup of sugar from my neighbor?"

Justice O'Connor joined Justice Stevens's majority opinion, as did Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome of the case but did not subscribe to all of Justice Stevens's points.

In particular, Justice Scalia disputed the "fairy-tale" assertion that some "patriotic citizens" would rather keep their views to themselves than subject themselves to government licensing.

"If our free-speech jurisprudence is to be determined by the predicted behavior of such crackpots, we are in a sorry state indeed," Justice Scalia wrote.

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