Supreme Court Hears Door-to-Door Solicitor Ordinance Case
Otero, Juan, Nation's Cities Weekly
Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Jehovah's Witnesses against the town of Stratton, Ohio. At issue for the high court was whether cities can require people who want to go door-to-door to discuss religious, political or social issues to first register with local officials.
The village of Stratton, an Ohio River town with 300 people and one police officer, said it wanted to protect its residents -- many of whom are senior citizens -- against "scams and frauds" by "canvassers, solicitors, peddlers and hawkers." Its ordinance requires solicitors to register at the mayor's office and disclose their name and purpose. No fee is required, and permits are granted in all cases, the town's lawyers say. The Stratton village ordinance requires people who want to visit homes to promote any "cause" to give their names, addresses and general activities before obtaining a permit.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, who took the issue to the high court, say the Constitution gives them the freedom to "go door to door to speak the good news," as their lawyer put it. "This involves pure religious speech or pure political speech," their attorney, Paul Polidoro, told the court. "We don't believe you can be required to go to the government for permission before you speak to your neighbors."
But Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist objected to Polidoro's claim and defended the town's ordinance. "you call them neighbors. I take it they are strangers," he said, referring to the Witnesses. Rehnquist noted that a recent newspaper account of the slayings of two Dartmouth College professors reported that the teenagers accused of the crime had gone door to door, checking out homes before they picked the victims.
Justice Antonin Scalia said he was surprised that city officials today would think they could enforce such a law. "They are not selling goods. If you want to talk about Jesus Christ or talk about protecting the environment," the government cannot prevent that, he said. "You say this ordinance is OK because it only addresses communication," Scalia said mockingly. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he too was "astounded" by the ordinance. "You say I have to get the government's permission before I go down the block to talk to my neighbors ... about the garbage collection," Kennedy said. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor picked up the theme, noting that the ordinance as written would cover trick-or-treaters at Halloween or carolers at Christmas. "What if I want to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor? It literally covers that," O'Connor told the town's lawyer.
Defending the ordinance, attorney Abraham Cantor said the city simply wants to register solicitors. …