| Article published Tuesday, June 18, 2002|
Supreme Court ruling backs door-to-door
Free-speech rights top
quest to shield residents
BLADE'S WIRE SERVICES
WASHINGTON - City officials cannot require
missionaries, politicians, and neighborhood activists to obtain a
permit before going door-to-door to spread their message, the
Supreme Court ruled yesterday saying the right to free speech trumps
the government's desire to shield the privacy of homeowners, at
least when the solicitors are not selling a product.
court ruling concerned the tiny Ohio River village of Stratton,
Ohio, whose ordinance was designed to prevent scam artists from
exploiting its mostly elderly population of 278. The court majority
concluded that the village's intentions did not justify a measure
that required not only Jehovah's Witnesses but also political
advocates to register with local officials before taking their
respective messages to their neighbors.
Writing for the
court, Justice John Paul Stevens repeatedly noted cases from the
1930s and 1940s in which Jehovah's Witnesses fought, and won, legal
battles against efforts to block their door-to-door proselytizing,
which the group believes is mandated by the Bible.
Stevens noted that the ordinance was so broadly written that it
would apply not only to Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious
canvassers but to such casual neighborhood politicking as "ringing
doorbells to enlist support for employing a more efficient garbage
He suggested residents simply post "No
Solicitors" signs, which could be enforced by local authorities, to
avoid unwanted visits.
Paul Polidoro, associate general
counsel of the Jehovah's Witnesses Watchtower Bible and Tract
Society, called the decision "a modern reaffirmation of the
continued vitality of the cases in the '30s and '40s.
1940s, the Supreme Court struck down a series of ordinances that
were targeted at Jehovah's Witnesses. Some of the measures barred
soliciting; others imposed a tax on those who wanted to go
door-to-door. Yesterday's ruling goes a step further, saying the
permit requirement itself violates the First Amendment.
case had been watched closely by lawyers for municipalities around
the nation. Concerned that some solicitors might be con artists,
they hoped the high court would allow local officials more leeway to
Anyone who wants to solicit door-to-door in
Toledo needs a permit and must register information about his or her
The Toledo Finance Department distributes the
permits that solicitors must carry with them. Nobody from the
finance office was available for comment yesterday, and the effect
of the Supreme Court ruling on Toledo was unclear.
addition, various townships in Ohio have separate rules for the
hours during which people can solicit.
A spokesman for Ohio
Citizen Action, which goes door to door seeking assistance for
environmental causes, applauded the decision, saying that
noncommercial groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Citizen
Action should be able to speak freely, without being vetted first by
Kendall Jackson, statewide staff director for
the organization, said, "Registration could be tantamount to
selection by a city; some groups can practice political speech and
Ohio Citizen Action has aggressively fought
any ordinance limiting its ability to solicit door to door, suing
many municipalities. Nonetheless, Mr. Jackson said that notifying
the city is not a problem, and the organization will continue to do
In his lone dissent, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist
cited that requiring permits would give residents "a degree of
accountability and safety," they would otherwise not have, he
He left open the possibility that a permit requirement
could stand if it was limited to commercial solicitors or targeted
at stopping crime or fraud.
The ruling shows again that the
free-speech principle enjoys broad support on the high court, and it
brings together its liberal and conservative
Joining Justice Stevens in the main opinion were
Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy,
Sandra Day O'Connor, and David H. Souter. Justices Antonin Scalia
and Clarence Thomas went along with the result but did not support
all of Justice Stevens' reasoning.