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June 20, 2002


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Regional News | Article published Tuesday, June 18, 2002
Supreme Court ruling backs door-to-door solicitations
Free-speech rights top quest to shield residents


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.

The 8-1 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.

Justice 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 collector."

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.

In the 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.

The 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 limit solicitors.

Anyone who wants to solicit door-to-door in Toledo needs a permit and must register information about his or her organization.

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.

In 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 the government.

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 others can't."

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 so.

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 said.

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 factions.

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.

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