Door-to-door solicitors advocating religious or political views have a right to spread their ideas anonymously without having to consult beforehand with government officials.
In a significant First Amendment decision announced Monday, the US Supreme Court struck down an ordinance enacted by a small Ohio town that required the prior registration of traveling salesmen, religious proselytizers, political activists, and anyone else seeking to go door to door.
The 8-to-1 decision supporting a challenge to the ordinance by the Jehovah's Witnesses is important because it establishes that the Constitution's free-speech guarantees include the right to speak to one's neighbors or solicit in a community without first obtaining government permission.
"It is offensive not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but 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 obtain a permit to do so," writes Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.
The decision comes at a time when cities and towns across the nation are considering adopting similar ordinances as a means to protect residents from possible fraud by traveling criminals and the nuisance of uninvited doorstep solicitors.
Free-speech advocates say such measures are eroding the quality of expression in America in exchange for the convenience, safety, and privacy promised through local laws restricting door-to-door activities.
"It is a big day for the First Amendment," says Mikal Condon of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The court's "protection of the right to remain anonymous is very important, especially post Sept. 11, when the right to remain anonymous has been perceived by many people as pernicious or underhanded."
The local solicitation registration law, enacted in 1998 by the village of Stratton, was aimed at protecting elderly residents from out-of-town scam artists and preserving the privacy of homeowners. Under the law, would-be solicitors were automatically granted permits if they first provided their names, addresses, a description of their cause, and other identifying information to city hall. No one who applied for a permit was turned down.
But the justices said the very act of requiring disclosure of one's name prior to engaging in the constitutionally protected activity of talking to people in their own community violates core constitutional principles guaranteeing free speech.
The issue is not new. The US Supreme Court in the 1930s and '40s struck down a series of ordinances aimed at preventing religious groups from spreading their messages door to door. The Jehovah's Witnesses fought and won the bulk of those battles.
"As our World War II-era cases dramatically demonstrate, there are a significant number of persons whose religious scruples will prevent them from applying for such a license," Justice Stevens writes. "There are no doubt other patriotic citizens, who have such firm convictions about their constitutional right to engage in uninhibited debate in the context of door-to-door advocacy, that they would prefer silence to speech licensed by a petty official."
In a lone dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said there might be good reason to enact local laws restricting door-to-door activities. He cited the recent murder of two Dartmouth College professors in their home by two teens who posed as canvassers.
"For over 60 years, we have categorically stated that a permit requirement for door-to-door canvassers, which gives no discretion to the issuing authority, is constitutional," the chief justice writes.
Justice Stevens suggests that the Stratton law might have complied with free-speech requirements had the city narrowed its scope to apply only to door-to-door commercial activities and those soliciting funds.
The Stratton ordinance was challenged by a group of Jehovah's Witnesses, who view door-to-door proselytizing as a key part of their mission. Lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses say they do not object to identifying themselves to residents when asked. But the lawyers challenged the ordinance as an overly broad violation of free-speech rights, because it requires government permission to speak.
The village maintained that the solicitation ordinance did not significantly impact free speech, because everyone who applied received a permit, regardless of their intended message or the purpose of their solicitation.
They added that the permit was necessary only for door-to-door activities on private property. Solicitors were still free to discuss issues and debate residents without a permit in public areas.
A federal judge and the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the ordinance. The Sixth Circuit determined the law was not contrary to an earlier Supreme Court ruling finding a right to distribute political pamphlets anonymously. The justices in this case said there were less restrictive means for the village to protect homeowners from suspected con men posing as solicitors. They could post "no solicitation" signs and warn residents to simply refuse to engage in conversation with unwelcome visitors.
Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.