Religious Solicitors Free to Knock ; the Justices Protect the Right of Jehovah's Witnesses and Others to Solicit Door to Door with No Town Permit

Article excerpt

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. …