Supreme Court Throws Out Law Requiring
Permits for Doorstep Sales, Proselytizing
By Anne Gearan
Associated Press Writer
June 17, 2002; 11:35 AM
The Constitution protects the right of missionaries, politicians and
others to knock on doors without first getting permission from local
authorities, the Supreme Court ruled today.
The court struck down a local law that leaders of a small Ohio town
said was meant to protect elderly residents from being bothered at home –
a law challenged by the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion calls for
With two weeks left in the court term, the justices still have more
than a dozen high-profile cases to decide, including legal disputes
involving the death penalty and government vouchers for church
In other cases decided today, the justices:
- Ruled that police who want to look for drugs or evidence of other
crimes do not have to first inform public transportation passengers of
their legal rights. The court rejected arguments that passengers,
confined to small spaces, might feel coerced.
- Decided that the Internal Revenue Service can use estimates of cash
tips received by restaurant staff to make sure it is collecting enough
Social Security taxes from their employers.
- Rejected arguments that Texas redistricting hurt Hispanics. The
justices, without hearing arguments, affirmed congressional and state
legislative boundaries that favor Republicans.
- Barred Americans from seeking punitive damages from cities and
government boards that refuse to build wheelchair ramps and make other
accommodations for the disabled.
In the doorstep-solicitation case, by a vote of 8 to 1, the court
reasoned that the First Amendment right to free speech includes the
entitlement to take a message directly to someone's door, and that the
right cannot be limited by a requirement to register by name ahead of
"The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises
constitutional concerns," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself and
Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth
Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
"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
Two of the court's most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas, agreed with the outcome of the case but did not sign on
to Stevens' reasoning.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented.
Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for the
Separation of Church and State, said the court got it right.
"It seems that the court has simply said once again that you shouldn't
have to get the government's permission to spread your views," Lynn
"People have the right not to listen or to close their doors, but the
government is not supposed to be in that door closing business."
Stratton, Ohio, required a permit for any door-to-door soliciting by
salesmen or anyone else. Theoretically, girl scouts would have to get such
a permit to sell cookies, as would a candidate for the school board or a
student raising money for a class trip.
The majority in today's case said the law was too broad. Had it been
much more narrowly written to guard against unwanted sales calls, it might
have withstood constitutional scrutiny, Stevens wrote.
People who do not want to listen to a political candidate or other
canvasser need not do so, the court said. Residents may post a "No
Solicitations" sign at the door, or simply refuse to engage in
The court also rejected the town's claim that the law helped prevent
crime. There is no evidence that a criminal casing a neighborhood would be
deterred by the need to get a permit, the court said.
The case turned in part on the notion of anonymity when speaking one's
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.
The church argued that it needs no one's permission to pursue what it
views as its mission to take religion to people's homes. Someone going
door to door may choose to introduce himself, but should not be required
to do so, the church argued.
Two lower federal courts found the permit rules evenhanded, and the
church appealed. The Supreme Court reversed, and sent the case back to a
Rehnquist's dissent mentioned the killings of two university professors
in New Hampshire, allegedly by men who had cased the neighborhood by going
door to door.
Stratton's law was intended to address such "very grave risks
associated with canvassing," and did not unduly limit free speech,
Stratton, population 287, includes many retirees who were sick of being
pestered by Jehovah's Witnesses and others, the town's mayor has said.
Village Solicitor Frank Bruzzese said the town law was "narrowly drawn
to regulate only entry onto private property."
He interpreted the court's decision as permission for a canvasser to
enter private property without the homeowner's consent, so long as the
canvasser's intent was to exercise a free speech right.
"If that's what it means, I guess we'll all have to live with it," he
The town has had a testy history with the Jehovah's Witnesses
congregation in nearby Wellsville.
Anyone who wants to go door to door must first go to the mayor's office
and fill out a permit application. The form requires a name and other
identifying information, and is kept on file. There is no fee.
About 15 people have applied for permits since the law took effect, and
no one has been turned away. Jehovah's Witnesses did not apply, because
they considered the permit unconstitutional.
The church won victories in the 1930s and 1940s that have helped form
the court's modern interpretation of the First Amendment.
Stevens took note of the World War II-era cases, saying they repeatedly
saved Jehovah's Witnesses "from petty prosecutions."
"The value judgment that then motivated a united democratic people
fighting to defend those very freedoms from totalitarian attack is
unchanged. It motivates our decision today," Stevens wrote.
The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v.
Village of Stratton, Ohio, et al., 00-1737.
© 2002 The Associated Press