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