Supreme Court rules that Stratton, Ohio, violated free speech
In an 8-1 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court again ruled in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses. A law in Stratton, Ohio, ordering all door-to-door canvassers to first get permission from the mayor's office is unconstitutional, the court said (PDF | HTML).
"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," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. Distributing religious materials, the court reiterated from previous rulings, "occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits." Still, the court concentrated on free speech, not religious freedom—all canvassing, not just religious canvassing, is okay.
The lone dissenter was chief justice William H. Rehnquist, who argued that the decision "renders local governments largely impotent to address the very real safety threat that canvassers pose." He especially noted a double murder in Hanover, New Hampshire, where two Dartmouth College professors were killed by teenagers pretending to conduct an environmental survey for school. "The Constitution does not require that Stratton first endure its own crime wave before it takes measures to prevent crime," Rehnquist wrote. "In light of today's decision depriving Stratton residents of the degree of accountability and safety that the permit requirement provides, more and more residents may decide to place these signs in their yards and cut off door-to-door communication altogether." ...1
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