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Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton

    Citation. 536 U.S. 150 (2002)

    Brief Fact Summary. The village of Stratton (D) required anyone wishing to do door-to-door canvassing to register with the mayor and to obtain a permit, under an ordinance. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York (P) filed a suit seeking an injunction against the ordinance.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A municipal ordinance which requires a prospective door-to-door canvasser to register and obtain a prior permit violates the First Amendment.

    Facts. The Village of Stratton (D) had an ordinance meant to discourage uninvited solicitation on private property in the village. The prospective canvasser was required to obtain a solicitation permit from the mayor’s office, the permit being free of cost and available after filling out an application form. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York (P) filed a suit against the Village of Stratton (D) seeking an injunctive relief against the ordinance, the argument being that it violated the constitutional guarantees to freedom to practice one’s religion, free speech and freedom of the press. The federal district court decided that the ordinance was constitutional, and the same was affirmed by the federal court of appeals. The Village of Stratton appealed.

    Issue. The question is whether a municipal ordinance which makes a permit and prior registration necessary to canvass for a political cause violates the First Amendment.

    Held. (Stevens, J.) Yes. A municipal ordinance which requires a prior registration and permit before door-to-door canvassing for a political cause is against the First Amendment.  The ordinance in question covers a wide range of speech, which gives room for concern. It infringes on the First Amendment guarantee as to freedom of religion, of speech and of the press, but even more, it violates the basic concept of what is a free society. That is, in a matter of routine public speech, a citizen need not expect that he must first inform the government and then take a permit to speak to his neighbors. The issue is not whether the permit is promptly and freely issued to all seekers, but that such an activity constituting one aspect of free speech should seek to be regulated by the government. This violates the heritage and tradition of the U.S. constitution and nation. Some citizens might also find practical difficulties in applying for such a permit, due to their religious or patriotic views. If a person held religious views which forbade him to seek such a permit, or if a man so firmly held that it was his fundamental right to talk to his neighbors door-to-door, that he would rather keep silent altogether than have this right licensed by an official, such persons would be denied these fundamental rights by this ordinance. Even spontaneous acts like urging a neighbor to vote for or against some candidate at the neighbor’s door, even if just across the street, would bring a charge of unlawful activity against one. The absence of a permit need not inconvenience criminals from pursuing their unlawful activities after knocking on the door, so that the ordinance is not helpful in this aspect. The decision is reversed and the case remanded.

    Dissent. (Rehnquist, J.) This ordinance is neutral as to whom it affects, and places no restriction on the activity of any door-to-door activist. The only object is to regulate the manner in which one does so. It would surely result in fewer persons doing this. Since the permit  is not subject to the discretion of any official or governing body, it does not violate any basic freedom.

    Concurrence. (Breyer, J.) The municipality in this case did not anticipate that issuing a permit for door-to-door canvassing would prevent burglaries and violent crime, since their arguments do not give any space to this possibility.
    ( Scalia, J.) I do not think with the Court that religious scruples form one of the reasons why the ordinance should be declared invalid.

    Discussion. The Supreme Court noted in this decision that whether or not a person has a permit, the disturbance caused is the same for the subject of the activity. The official record did not show any evidence of criminal activity associated with this type of visiting which would justify the requiring of a permit beforehand.


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