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
"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
"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. …