Village officials in Stratton, near Steubenville, thought it
essential to control door-to-door canvassing to protect residents,
particularly the elderly, from con artists and other solicitors. The
concern is genuine, even admirable. Canvassing can be a nuisance,
and in some cases, a ruse to victimize people.
However, Stratton's solution, a 1998 ordinance requiring groups
to register with village officials for permits to knock on doors,
took an unwarranted liberty. It assumed the power to determine who
can solicit an audience from house to house.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ordinance with
a convincing 8-1 majority. The ordinance was overly broad, it said,
and ``offensive... 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 to
obtain a permit to do so.''
The village might have intended to deter criminals and not to
restrict neighborhood solicitations by nonprofit organizations,
Scouts or school groups, or even to block those promoting social or
political causes and religious beliefs. Yet the reach of the law it
crafted covered all of them.
The Jehovah's Witnesses saw the threat to their proselytizing and
to their First Amendment protection. The high court saw it, too.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens made a pointed
observation: A resident can refuse to listen and can put up a no
A government shouldn't determine who speaks to whom.