Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton

PETITIONER: Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of New York, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Village of Stratton
LOCATION: Los Angeles City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 00-1737
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 536 US 150 (2002)
ARGUED: Feb 26, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 17, 2002

ADVOCATES:
Abraham Cantor - Argued the cause for the respondents
David M. Gormley - argued the cause as amicus curiae, supporting the respondents
Paul D. Polidoro - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

The Village of Stratton promulgated an ordinance that prohibits canvassers from entering private residential property to promote any cause without first obtaining a permit from the mayor's office. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses that publish and distribute religious materials, brought an action for injunctive relief, alleging that the ordinance violates their First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion, free speech, and freedom of the press. The District Court upheld most provisions of the ordinance as valid, content-neutral regulations. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the Village's interests in protecting its residents from fraud and its desire to prevent criminals from posing as canvassers in order to defraud its residents were sufficient bases on which to justify the regulation.

Question

Does a municipal ordinance that requires a permit prior to engaging in the door-to-door advocacy of a political cause and to display upon demand the permit, which contains one's name, violate the First Amendment protection accorded to anonymous pamphleteering or discourse?

Media for Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 26, 2002 in Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 17, 2002 in Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 00-1737, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York versus the Village of Stratton will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

This case comes to us from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The petitioners are Jehovah’s Witnesses who go from door-to-door distributing religious materials.

They brought this action against the Village of Stratton, Ohio challenging the constitutionality of an Ordinance that prohibits canvassers from going on private property to promote any cause without first obtaining a permit from the Mayor’s Office.

The District Court upheld the ordinance and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari to decide whether the ordinance violates the First Amendment.

We note that the ordinance covers far more than commercial activity and the solicitation of funds.

It applies to religions and political activity and would same to extend the spontaneous speech on a Sunday afternoon of a neighbor who decided to ring a neighbor’s doorbell and ask him to vote against mayor at the next election or something like that.

For reasons stated, in an opinion filed with the Clerk we conclude that the ordinance is a species of a prior restraint that is not tailored to protecting the village residents from fraud, from invasions of their privacy or from crime.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Breyer joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg has filed a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring on the judgment in which Justice Thomas has joined, and the Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion.