WASHINGTON – The Constitution protects the right of missionaries, politicians and others to knock on doors without first getting permission from local authorities, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court struck down a local law that leaders of a small Ohio town said was meant to protect elderly residents from being bothered at home. The ruling is a victory for the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion calls for doorstep proselytizing.
By a vote of 8 to 1, the court reasoned that the First Amendment right to free speech includes the entitlement to take a message or idea directly to someone's door, and that the right cannot be limited by a requirement to register by name ahead of time.
"The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
"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."
Two of the court's most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, agreed only with the outcome of the case and did not sign on to Stevens' reasoning.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented.
Stratton, Ohio, required a permit for any door-to-door soliciting by salesmen or anyone else. Theoretically, girl scouts would have to get such a permit to sell cookies, as would a candidate for the school board or a student raising money for a class trip.
The majority in Monday's case said the law was too broad. Had it been much more narrowly written to guard against unwanted sales calls, it might have withstood constitutional scrutiny, Stevens wrote.
People who do not want to listen to a political candidate or other canvasser need not do so, the court said. Residents may post a "No Solicitations" sign at the door, or simply refuse to engage in conversation.
The court also rejected the town's claim that the law helped prevent crime. There is no evidence that a criminal casing a neighborhood would be deterred by the need to get a permit, the court said.
The case turned in part on the notion of anonymity when speaking one's mind.
The court already has held that the Constitution gives people the right to anonymously distribute campaign literature. Monday's ruling extends that right to door-to-door soliciting for other causes.
The church argued that it needs no one's permission to pursue what it views as its mission to take religion to people's homes. Someone going door to door may choose to introduce himself, but should not be required to do so, the church argued.
Two lower federal courts found the permit rules evenhanded, and the church appealed. The Supreme Court reversed, and sent the case back to a lower court.
Rehnquist's dissent mentioned the killings of two university professors in New Hampshire, allegedly by men who had cased the neighborhood by going door to door.
Stratton's law was intended to address such "very grave risks associated with canvassing," and did not unduly limit free speech, Rehnquist wrote.
Stratton, population 287, includes many retirees who were sick of being pestered by Jehovah's Witnesses and others, the town's mayor has said. The Witnesses say the 1998 law requiring a permit was specifically aimed at them, but the town denies that.
The town has had a testy history with the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in nearby Wellsville.
Anyone who wants to go door to door must first go to the mayor's office and fill out a permit application. The form requires a name and other identifying information, and is kept on file. There is no fee.
The solicitor gets a paper permit, which must be carried for display on demand to the town's one police officer or to any resident who asks.
About 15 people have applied for permits since the law took effect, and no one has been turned away. Jehovah's Witnesses did not apply, because they considered the permit unconstitutional.
The church won victories in the 1930s and 1940s that have helped form the court's modern interpretation of the First Amendment.
Stevens took note of the World War II-era cases, saying they repeatedly saved Jehovah's Witnesses "from petty prosecutions."
"The value judgment that then motivated a united democratic people fighting to defend those very freedoms from totalitarian attack is unchanged. It motivates our decision today," Stevens wrote.
The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton, Ohio, et al., 00-1737.