WASHINGTON — If you want to solicit door to door in Stratton, Ohio, you have to get a permit. The rule is as simple as that, say village officials.
Permits are easily obtained from the mayor's office. They cost nothing. No one has ever been turned down.
But that's not the problem, according to lawyers for a group of Jehovah's Witnesses seeking to spread the gospel in Stratton. They insist that Americans have a constitutional right to walk door to door and talk with residents without having to first apply for permission. They also say people have a right to do it anonymously - without being forced to disclose information to local authorities.
Today, the Jehovah's Witnesses' battle against Stratton's solicitation ordinance arrives at the US Supreme Court in a case that will determine whether the permit requirement is a permissible regulation of door-to-door activity or an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.
It is a subject of great interest to cities and towns across the nation who are looking for ways to protect residents from possible fraud by con artists and the nuisance of uninvited doorstep solicitors - including those on a mission from God.
Free-speech advocates view with alarm the growing number of local ordinances restricting such door-to-door activity, noting that the quality of free expression in America is under siege by municipalities seeking convenience, safety, and privacy at the expense of First Amendment liberty.
"The last decade has witnessed a dramatic surge in the number and severity of antisolicitation laws," says Von Keetch, a Salt Lake City lawyer, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in support of the Jehovah's Witnesses. "Municipal officials increasingly believe there are few, if any, constraints on their ability to severely limit door-to-door evangelism in their jurisdictions," Mr. Keetch says.
The issue is not new. The US Supreme Court in the 1930s and 1940s struck down a series of municipal ordinances aimed at preventing religious groups from spreading their messages door to door. The Jehovah's Witnesses fought the bulk of those battles and is again in the spotlight.
At the center of the Stratton case is the village's requirement that prior to receiving a permit all would-be door-to-door solicitors must first disclose their name, home address, their employer's name and address, and a description of their planned activities. Once this information is collected, a permit is issued. Solicitors are instructed that they must produce the permit and identify themselves if so requested by any resident or police officer.
To officials in Stratton and their supporters, the permit is well-balanced tool that allows solicitation but discourages criminals from circulating in the village and protects residents' privacy.
To the Jehovah's Witnesses and their supporters, the permit amounts to an outright ban of anonymous door-to-door solicitation and pamphleteering - including political advocacy.
"The free one-on-one exchange of ideas is a pillar of our democracy," says Paul Polidoro, a lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses, in his brief to the court. "Stratton has devalued both the constitutional right of speakers to express information and the constitutional right of residents to receive it if they so choose."
Abraham Cantor, a Concord, Ohio, lawyer representing Stratton, says the solicitation ordinance is different from others that have been struck down on free-speech grounds by the Supreme Court.
"The Stratton ordinance does not require a disseminator of ideas, whether religious or political, to place his name on the literature, wear a badge, or outwardly proclaim his identity in any manner," Cantor says.
The ordinance was upheld by the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
The appeals court brushed aside concerns about restricting anonymous speech, despite a 1995 US Supreme Court decision that established by a 7-2 vote a constitutional right to distribute political fliers anonymously.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion in the 1995 anonymous pamphlet case. It says in part: "Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority."
It remains unclear how the seven justices who supported anonymous pamphleteering will view a case involving anonymous soliciting.
Cantor, Stratton's lawyer, says door-to-door solicitors do not enjoy a constitutional right to remain anonymous when they are on private property.
"The Supreme Court has historically indicated that the home is a sanctuary," he says. "It is the right of the homeowner to maintain and retain his privacy."
Polidoro counters that there are easier and more effective ways to protect privacy. Residents could post "No Trespassing," and "No Soliciting," signs outside their homes and then prosecute anyone who ignores them, he says.