ASHINGTON, June 17 ó People have the right to go door
to door to advocate for religious, political or other
noncommercial causes without first getting the government's
permission, the Supreme Court ruled today in a lopsided
constitutional victory for the ministry of the Jehovah's
The 8-to-1 decision struck down a Stratton, Ohio, ordinance
that made it a crime for any canvasser or solicitor to pay an
uninvited visit on any of the 278 residents for the purpose of
promoting or explaining any cause without providing
identification and obtaining a permit from the mayor's office.
The village interpreted "canvassers" to include Jehovah's
Witnesses, with whom the mayor, John M. Abdalla, had long had
a tense relationship, and "cause" to include their
While drawing on a series of Supreme Court precedents that
found constitutional protection for the nonconformist views of
the Jehovah's Witnesses ó who refuse to salute the American
flag, for example ó the decision today was not limited to
religious expression. In his majority opinion, Justice John
Paul Stevens noted that the ordinance appeared to apply to
neighbors ringing one another's doorbells to solicit support
for political candidates or improved public services.
"It is offensive, not only to the values protected by the
First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society,"
Justice Stevens said, "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
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was the lone dissenter.
He cited a series of recent crimes, including the murder of a
Dartmouth University faculty couple by two teenagers who
gained entry to the couple's home by claiming to be conducting
a survey, in arguing that the Stratton ordinance was a valid
approach to crime control.
"The Constitution does not require that Stratton first
endure its own crime wave before it takes measures to prevent
crime," Justice Rehnquist said.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the
"crime prevention justification" the chief justice invoked in
support of the ordinance was "not a strong one" because the
village itself had not relied on it. Stratton argued that the
ordinance, adopted in 1998, was justified by the need to
protect residents' privacy and deter fraud, mentioning crime
only in passing.
"I can only conclude that if the village of Stratton
thought preventing burglaries and violent crimes was an
important justification for this ordinance, it would have said
so," Justice Breyer said.
Although the scale of the case was small, involving a
village on the Ohio River and a 59-member Jehovah's Witnesses
congregation from a nearby town, its themes and implications
were large, reflected in briefs filed by national
For some, the important theme was not so much the actual
restraint on speech as the value the court placed on anonymous
speech. Two recent Supreme Court decisions upholding the right
of political canvassers and pamphleteers to remain anonymous
have alarmed supporters of campaign finance disclosure
The decision today, Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v.
Village of Stratton, No. 00-1737, found the identification
requirement of the Stratton ordinance to be one of its
constitutional flaws. At the same time, Justice Stevens
suggested, although rather obliquely, that the earlier
decisions were limited in their application and did not stand
for a broad principle that no disclosure can be required in
the campaign finance context.
Many cities and towns have ordinances regulating commercial
solicitation, and those were not affected by the ruling today.
Justice Stevens suggested that the Stratton ordinance might
well have been constitutional had the village applied it "only
to commercial activities and the solicitation of funds."
A brief from the Mormon Church told the court that
restrictions on religious proselytizing were increasingly
common. The brief asked the court to rule that religious
expression had a "preferred status" under the First Amendment.
But the court's treatment of the ordinance as a broad
restriction on advocacy made it unnecessary for the justices
to reopen their debate over whether religious activities
should be exempt from generally applicable regulations.
Jehovah's Witnesses who regularly visited Stratton refused
to seek a permit on the ground that their authority to preach
derived from the Bible and not the government. Along with the
denomination's Brooklyn-based national organization, they
challenged the ordinance and lost, both in Federal District
Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth
Circuit, in Cincinnati.
In his majority opinion, Justice Stevens noted that Supreme
Court decisions in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses going back
to the 1930's and 1940's have echoed First Amendment
principles. "The value judgment that then motivated a united
democratic people fighting to defend those very freedoms from
totalitarian attack is unchanged," he said. "It motivates our
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did not sign
the majority opinion, instead concurring separately in an
opinion by Justice Scalia that was oddly churlish in tone.
Justice Scalia responded to a comment by Justice Stevens
that there were "patriotic citizens" who might "prefer silence
to speech licensed by a petty official." That was a
"fairy-tale category" of patriots, Justice Scalia said,
adding: "If our free-speech jurisprudence is to be determined
by the predicted behavior of such crackpots, we are in a sorry
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