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Supreme Court Throws Out Law Requiring Permits for Doorstep Sales, Proselytizing

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Supreme Court 2001-2002
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By Anne Gearan
Associated Press Writer
Monday, 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 doorstep proselytizing.

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 schools.

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 time.

"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 so."

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 said.

"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 conversation.

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 mind.

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 lower court.

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, Rehnquist wrote.

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 said.

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