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Solicitors don't need OK from City Hall

06/18/02

Tom Diemer and Elizabeth Auster
Plain Dealer Bureau

Washington

- A Stratton, Ohio, law that forced canvassers to get City Hall's permission before going door-to-door is offensive "to the very notion of a free society," the U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday.

In a strongly worded 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court threw out the ordinance, calling it a "dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition" that protects free speech and free exercise of religion.

Two lower courts had upheld the 1998 ordinance that required the Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as other groups, to register with the village government before knocking on doors in neighborhoods. The idea was to protect the many elderly residents from con artists, according to officials in the Ohio River community of fewer than 300.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the ordinance violated "the First Amendment as it applies to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech and the distribution of handbills." A citizen should not have to inform the government when she wishes to speak to her neighbors, Stevens said.

No one has yet been denied a permit, State Solicitor David Gormley said, defending the village law. But refusing to register would have constituted a misdemeanor violation in Stratton, which is just north of Steubenville.

In nearby Wellsville, the Jehovah's Witnesses, a religion requiring members to actively "witness" their faith, took the registration law to federal court. A U.S. District Court narrowed it - overturning a section limiting solicitations to daylight hours - but kept most of the ordinance in place.

Paul Polidoro, an attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Jehovah's Witnesses, said the impact of yesterday's ruling will reach beyond religious organizations. "The court was very direct in its statement of protection for speech interests here," he said.

Stevens said the ordinance can be rewritten to meet the village's stated interest "in protecting the privacy of its residents and preventing fraud." But as enacted, he said it was overly broad, apparently regulating the neighborhood activities of Camp Fire Girls, trick-or-treaters and political candidates.

"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," the justice wrote. Putting up a no solicitation sign, coupled with a resident's right to refuse to engage in conversation with unwelcome visitors, offers "ample protection for the unwilling listener," Stevens said.

Gormley said even a more narrowly drawn ordinance could be difficult to enforce and might lead to lawsuits. For example, he said, a law requiring permits only for door-to-door commercial activity could be challenged by a salesperson who combined a pitch for a product with a religious message.

Stratton Mayor John Abdalla had no immediate comment.

In a lone dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the inability of local governments to "address the very real safety threat that canvassers pose" may result in less of the door-to-door communication than the majority seeks to protect.

Contact Tom Diemer at:

tdiemer@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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