June 18, 2002
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Canvassing law nullified
High court invalidates permit requirement
Tuesday, June 18, 2002
Dispatch Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON -- State and local governments cannot require religious or political organizations to obtain permits before promoting their causes by knocking on the doors of private homes, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In an 8-1 decision, the justices struck down as a violation of the First Amendment an ordinance in Stratton, Ohio, that had been challenged by Jehovah's Witnesses. The ordinance prohibited anyone from canvassing door-to- door without a permit from the mayor's office in the village, on the Ohio River near Steubenville.

The justices concluded that while Stratton officials may regulate door-to-door commercial activities, such as people selling products or asking for financial contributions for their causes, the law was so broadly written it restricted constitutionally protected political and religious speech.

In a sharply worded opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens asserted it was "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 inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.''

Noting that the ordinance would prohibit "spontaneous speech,'' Stevens concluded that if a Stratton resident decided one weekend to support a political candidate, the person "could not begin to pass out handbills until after he or she obtained the required permit. Even a spontaneous decision to go across the street and urge a neighbor to vote against the mayor could not lawfully be implemented without first obtaining the mayor's permission.''

A spokesman for the Ohio Municipal League said he didn't know how many communities across the state have ordinances similar to the one in Stratton.

Marion's City Council enacted a similar law last October, basing it in part on the Stratton ordinance, after battling Ohio Citizen Action over the group's right to canvass door-to- door.

Sandy Buchanan, executive director of the public-advocacy and environmental group, was pleased by yesterday's ruling.

"This is a very strong upholding of the First Amendment and people's right to go door-to-door,'' she said.

Marion Law Director Mark Russell didn't return telephone messages seeking comment on the ruling's effect on the Marion law.

Buchanan said the decision would affect not just Marion but a number of other Ohio cities that currently require door-to-door solicitors to register beforehand.

"Any city now is going to have to look at their registration requirements and whether their ordinances infringe on the First Amendment,'' she said.

Joining Stevens to form the high court's majority were Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented.

"A discretionless permit requirement for canvassers does not violate the First Amendment,'' Rehnquist wrote. "Today, the court elevates its concern with what is, at most, a negligible burden on door-to-door communication above this established proposition.''

Stevens rejected arguments by local officials that the ordinance guaranteed privacy and safety for the 278 people living in Stratton.

"The annoyance caused by an uninvited knock on the front door is the same whether or not the visitor is armed with a permit,'' he said. "It seems unlikely that the absence of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors and engaging in conversations not covered by the ordinance.''

Stevens' opinion was, at times, scathing. At one point, he wrote that some Americans would prefer not to speak at all rather than being "licensed by a petty official.''

With its ruling, the justices overturned a decision last year by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the ordinance. The federal appeals panel concluded the law was "neutral'' because it required everyone -- from Camp Fire Girls to Halloween trick-or-treaters to politicians -- to obtain a permit before knocking on the door of a private residence.

Dispatch Staff Reporter Mary Beth Lane contributed to this story.



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