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Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton

Citation. 536 U.S. 150 (2002)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Watchtower Bible, who publishes religious literature and visits residential property to offer it at no cost, claims that a village ordinance that prohibits door-to-door advocacy without first obtaining a village permit violates the First Amendment. The respondent argues that the ordinance is justified because it seeks to prevent fraud, crime and protect residents’ privacy.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There must be a balance between the interests of government in enacting a law and the effect of the regulations on First Amendment rights.


Petitioners coordinate the preaching activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the U.S and publishes religious literature and visits residential property to offer it. The Village of Stratton, one of the petitioners‘ activity areas, has an ordinance that prohibits “canvassers” from going in and upon private residential property for the purpose of promoting any “cause” without first obtaining a permit. The required permit is quite easy to obtain without a cost, but the petitioners did not apply for it. The ordinance provides a procedure by which a resident may prohibit solicitation even by permit holders. The petitioners claim that the ordinance violates the First Amendment but the Village argues it does not because the ordinance serves three interests: prevention of fraud, prevention of crime, and protection of residents’ privacy.


Does a village ordinance that prohibits door-to-door advocacy without first obtaining a village permit violate the First Amendment?


Yes, because the ordinance is written broadly and restricts more than commercial activities and solicitation of funds. The ordinance cannot be deemed to be narrowly tailored to serve the Village’s interest in protecting the privacy of its residents and preventing fraud. Thus, the Village’s ordinance violates the First Amendment.


Justice Rehnquist

Our history demonstrates that canvassers may have reduced the enjoyment of a home and burglars frequently disguised themselves as canvassers. The data shows that more murder have occurred in Stratton, the area associated with frequent canvassing. The ordinance prevents and detects serious crime by making it a crime not to register. Moreover, the Stratton ordinance does not prohibit door-to-door canvassing, but merely demands that every canvasser apply and obtain a permit. The Village does not exercise any discretion in determining who receives a permit and the process is automatic upon proper completion of the form.


The provisions of the ordinance apply to a significant number of noncommercial “canvassers” promoting a wide variety of “causes.” The ordinance not only applies to religious causes but to political activity as well. The ordinance covers so much speech and is offensive and burdensome because it demands every citizen to obtain a permit whenever he/she wishes to speak to his or her neighbors. Our cases demonstrate that there exist many people who support causes anonymously. Also, requiring a permit imposes a heavy, objective burden on some speech of citizens holding religious views. Further, the alleged village interests are not sufficient to justify putting a heavy burden on others’ right to freedom of speech.

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