An antique wooden plaque in one of our offices reads: “It is wonderful that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. It is even more wonderful that the First Amendment doesn’t make anyone listen.” Most Americans would agree with both parts of the message. But on June 17 the Supreme Court held almost unanimously that sometimes we have to listen, at least briefly, to door-to-door preachers and politicians.
The case involved the village of Stratton (pop. 238, many retirees), a few miles south of Wellsville, Ohio, the home of a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses dedicated to their mission of door-to-door preaching. Annoyed by visits that many residents found too frequent (and sometimes intrusive), Stratton’s residents were unimpressed by the Witnesses’ reminder that St. Paul himself preached door-to-door (“teaching you in public and house to house”; Acts 20:20, King James Version).
In 1998 Stratton enacted an ordinance forbidding “canvassers” to ring doorbells without first going to the town’s mayor, identifying themselves and registering their cause. The mayor’s office automatically issued a permit to persons providing the required information. The Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to comply. They needed no permit; their mission was from God. They also objected to having to identify themselves to the government.
The authors of the ordinance tried to take advantage of a 1990 Supreme Court decision holding that the Free Exercise Clause does not protect members of a religious group against laws that are generally applicable and religiously neutral. Ironically, the Supreme Court (8 to 1) seized precisely on the sweeping breadth of the ordinance to invalidate it. No “canvasser”—not even a Girl Scout selling cookies—could go door-to-door without complying.
Justice John Paul Stevens’s opinion for the court is learned and persuasive. He relied on more than 60 years of Supreme Court precedents dealing with freedom of speech (political, religious and social). He also pointed to the intolerable consequences if cities and towns could validly adopt an ordinance like Stratton’s.
The court was particularly concerned about the impact of the Stratton ordinance on small, unpopular groups that do not have the financial resources to spread their political or religious message by conventional modern means. While striking down the ordinance, the court emphasized that the First Amendment still permits some regulation of door-to-door canvassing. Salesmen, for example, may still be forbidden to solicit business by going door-to-door, and fund-raising canvassers may still be required to identify themselves and fill out registration forms.
The court also stated that residents could protect themselves against unwanted intrusions by posting “No Solicitation” signs on their property. This solution, however, is both ugly (if the sign is permanent or large) and otherwise unsatisfactory. Most residents will not mind occasional visits from the Girl Scouts or similar local groups. More important, most residents will not want to post a permanent and detailed sign distinguishing between welcome and unwelcome groups.
If residents knew in advance when the canvassing was going to take place, they could post temporary signs. Moreover, artists might well design some decorative symbols (a red and yellow ribbon?) that would convey the residents’ desire for at least temporary solitude.
Even if the residents do not get advance notice of the canvassing, they can help themselves by telephoning each other promptly when the canvassing begins. Then they can hang a “Do not disturb” sign on their front door until the canvassing ends. The First Amendment protects the canvassers only against the government—not against alert and unwilling residents.
Despite the force of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s well-reasoned dissent, the eight-justice majority of the court reached the right conclusion in this case. Although Stratton almost certainly enacted its ordinance because of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the court did not rest its decision on religious discrimination. As Justice Stevens said in the opinion of the court (quoting an earlier case involving labor unions), “If one who solicits support for the cause of labor may be required to register as a condition to the exercise of his right to make a public speech, so may he who seeks to rally support for any social, business, religious or political cause.”
Thus, Jehovah’s Witnesses are only one of many beneficiaries of the court’s decision. To keep private speech free, the court must be vigilant against sophisticated and subtle governmental interferences.
If Jehovah’s Witnesses ring your doorbell, you may still turn them away. You may also—if you think it appropriate—thank them for helping to preserve freedom of speech. For more than two generations they have held the all-time record for winning free-speech cases in the Supreme Court. Their freedom protects ours.