- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that governments may not require door-to-door evangelists or political workers to identify themselves and to obtain permits.

"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," the court said in an 8-1 decision.

The case from Stratton, Ohio which Jehovah's Witnesses said required "a license to speak to another citizen at that citizen's home" was the latest free-speech victory for that church. Members often face animosity in emulating the apostolic "house-to-house search" to preach to people.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the decision that drew the votes of all except Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who said the ruling opened homeowners to wandering criminals.

In his lone dissent, the chief justice said the court "renders local governments largely impotent to address the very real safety threat that canvassers pose."

He said such a law might have prevented the January 2001 murders of Dartmouth College professors Susanne and Half Zantop by two teen-agers posing as door-to-door poll takers in Hanover, N.H.

"I think the decision just reaffirms the fundamental protection the First Amendment accords to the public ministry of Jehovah's Witnesses and for citizens in general," said Paul D. Polidoro, attorney for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

"One would have thought that hostility was a thing of the past," he said of Stratton Mayor John M. Abdalla, who was outspoken about his determination to stop Wellsville, Ohio, Jehovah's Witnesses from "pestering" Stratton's 278 residents.

Village Solicitor Frank Bruzzese said he reads the decision as permission for canvassers to go onto private property without consent, so long as they intend to exercise a free-speech right.

"If that's what it means, I guess we'll all have to live with it," the village attorney said.

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said, "You shouldn't have to get the government's permission to spread your views. People have the right not to listen or to close their doors, but the government is not supposed to be in that door-closing business."

Mr. Polidoro said Jehovah's Witnesses agree.

"If a householder says, 'I'd rather not engage in a discussion,' we respect that, but it's a householder's choice, not a government choice," he said.

Taking a page from Justice Stevens' opinion, Mr. Polidoro recalled a series of high court judgments that broadened free-speech rights after the 1930s persecution "against ministers merely for speaking about the Bible."

"The efforts of Jehovah's Witnesses to overcome restrictions on speech regulation have not affected their rights alone," he said in an interview from his office at Patterson, N.Y.

The court said commercial solicitors may be regulated to prevent fraud and to protect residents' privacy, but it found Stratton's rules far too broad and reversed decisions by two lower courts that found the statute fair.

Justice Stevens adapted that view in announcing the decision from the bench when he said the local law could restrict neighbors from talking to one another.

"Even a spontaneous decision to go across the street and urge a neighbor to vote against the mayor could not lawfully be implemented without first obtaining the mayor's permission," the opinion said.

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