Mayor of the Village of Stratton, Ohio


June 17, 2002

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners contend that a village ordinance making it a misdemeanor to engage in door-to-door advocacy without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit violates the First Amendment. Through this facial challenge, we consider the door-to-door canvassing regulation not only as it applies to religious proselytizing, but also to anonymous political speech and the distribution of handbills.


Petitioner Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., coordinates the preaching activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the United States and publishes Bibles and religious periodicals that are widely distributed. Petitioner Wellsville, Ohio, Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Inc., supervises the activities of approximately 59 members in a part of Ohio that includes the Village of Stratton (Village). Petitioners offer religious literature without cost to anyone interested in reading it. They allege that they do not solicit contributions or orders for the sale of merchandise or services, but they do accept donations.

Petitioners brought this action against the Village and its mayor in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, seeking an injunction against the enforcement of several sections of Ordinance No.  1998—5 regulating uninvited peddling and solicitation on private property in the Village. Petitioners’ complaint alleged that the ordinance violated several constitutional rights, including the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the freedom of the press.....

Section 116.01 prohibits “canvassers” and others from “going in and upon” private residential property for the purpose of promoting any “cause” without first having obtained a permit pursuant to §116.03.1 That section provides that any canvasser who intends to go on private property to promote a cause, must obtain a “Solicitation Permit” from the office of the mayor; there is no charge for the permit, and apparently one is issued routinely after an applicant fills out a fairly detailed “Solicitor’s Registration Form.” The canvasser is then authorized to go upon premises that he listed on the registration form, but he must carry the permit upon his person and exhibit it whenever requested to do so by a police officer or by a resident.....A section of the ordinance that petitioners do not challenge establishes a procedure by which a resident may prohibit solicitation even by holders of permits. If the resident files a “No Solicitation Registration Form” with the mayor, and also posts a “No Solicitation” sign on his property, no uninvited canvassers may enter his property, unless they are specifically authorized to do so in the “No Solicitation Registration Form” itself. Only 32 of the Village’s 278 residents filed such forms....

Although Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consider themselves to be “solicitors” because they make no charge for their literature or their teaching, leaders of the church testified at trial that they would honor “no solicitation” signs in the Village. They also explained at trial that they did not apply for a permit because they derive their authority to preach from Scripture. “For us to seek a permit from a municipality to preach we feel would almost be an insult to God.....”

We granted certiorari to decide the following question: “Does a municipal ordinance that requires one to obtain 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?”


For over 50 years, the Court has invalidated restrictions on door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering. It is more than historical accident that most of these cases involved First Amendment challenges brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses, because door-to-door canvassing is mandated by their religion....Although our past cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, most of which were decided shortly before and during World War II, do not directly control the question we confront today, they provide both a historical and analytical backdrop for consideration of petitioners’ First Amendment claim that the breadth of the Village’s ordinance offends the First Amendment.... From these decisions, several themes emerge that guide our consideration of the ordinance at issue here.

First, the cases emphasize the value of the speech involved. For example, in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, the Court noted that “hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism–as old as the history of printing presses. It has been a potent force in various religious movements down through the years… . This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits. It has the same claim to protection as the more orthodox and conventional exercises of religion. It also has the same claim as the others to the guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

In addition, the cases discuss extensively the historical importance of door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering as vehicles for the dissemination of ideas. In Schneider v. State (Town of Irvington), 308 U.S. 147 (1939), the petitioner was a Jehovah’s Witness who had been convicted of canvassing without a permit based on evidence that she had gone from house to house offering to leave books or booklets. Writing for the Court, Justice Roberts stated that “pamphlets have proved most effective instruments in the dissemination of opinion....

Despite the emphasis on the important role that door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering has played in our constitutional tradition of free and open discussion, these early cases also recognized the interests a town may have in some form of regulation, particularly when the solicitation of money is involved. In Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), the Court held that an ordinance requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain a license before soliciting door to door was invalid because the issuance of the license depended on the exercise of discretion by a city official. Our opinion recognized that “a State may protect its citizens from fraudulent solicitation by requiring a stranger in the community, before permitting him publicly to solicit funds for any purpose, to establish his identity and his authority to act for the cause which he purports to represent.”

Finally, the cases demonstrate that efforts of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to resist speech regulation have not been a struggle for their rights alone. In Martin, after cataloging the many groups that rely extensively upon this method of communication, the Court summarized that “[d]oor to door distribution of circulars is essential to the poorly financed causes of little people.....”

Although these World War II-era cases provide guidance for our consideration of the question presented, they do not answer one preliminary issue that the parties adamantly dispute. That is, what standard of review ought we use in assessing the constitutionality of this ordinance. We find it unnecessary, however, to resolve that dispute because the breadth of speech affected by the ordinance and the nature of the regulation make it clear that the Court of Appeals erred in upholding it.


The Village argues that three interests are served by its ordinance: the prevention of fraud, the prevention of crime, and the protection of residents’ privacy. We have no difficulty concluding, in light of our precedent, that these are important interests that the Village may seek to safeguard through some form of regulation of solicitation activity. We must also look, however, to the amount of speech covered by the ordinance and whether there is an appropriate balance between the affected speech and the
governmental interests that the ordinance purports to serve.

The text of the Village’s ordinance prohibits “canvassers” from going on private property for the purpose of explaining or promoting any “cause,” unless they receive a permit and the residents visited have not opted for a “no solicitation” sign. Had this provision been construed to apply only to commercial activities and the solicitation of funds, arguably the ordinance would have been tailored to the Village’s interest in protecting the privacy of its residents and preventing fraud. Yet, even though the Village has explained that the ordinance was adopted to serve those interests, it has never contended that it should be so narrowly interpreted. To the contrary, the Village’s administration of its ordinance unquestionably demonstrates that the provisions apply to a significant number of noncommercial “canvassers” promoting a wide variety of “causes.” Indeed, on the “No Solicitation Forms” provided to the residents, the canvassers include “Camp Fire Girls,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” “Political Candidates,” “Trick or Treaters during Halloween Season,” and “Persons Affiliated with Stratton Church.” The ordinance unquestionably applies, not only to religious causes, but to political activity as well. It would seem to extend to “residents casually soliciting the votes of neighbors,” or ringing doorbells to enlist support for employing a more efficient garbage collector.

The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns. 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. Even if the issuance of permits by the mayor’s office is a ministerial task that is performed promptly and at no cost to the applicant, a law requiring a permit to engage in such speech constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition....

Three obvious examples illustrate the pernicious effect of such a permit requirement. First, as our cases involving distribution of unsigned handbills demonstrate, there are a significant  number of persons who support causes anonymously....Second, requiring a permit as a prior condition on the exercise of the right to speak imposes an objective burden on some speech of citizens holding religious or patriotic views.....Third, there is a significant amount of spontaneous speech that is effectively banned by the ordinance. A person who made a decision on a holiday or a weekend to take an active part in a political campaign could not begin to pass out handbills until after he or she obtained the required permit. 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 breadth and unprecedented nature of this regulation does not alone render the ordinance invalid. Also central to our conclusion that the ordinance does not pass First Amendment scrutiny is that it is not tailored to the Village’s stated interests. Even if the interest in preventing fraud could adequately support the ordinance insofar as it applies to commercial transactions and the solicitation of funds, that interest provides no support for its application to petitioners, to political campaigns, or to enlisting support for unpopular causes.

The Village, however, argues that the ordinance is nonetheless valid because it serves the additional interest of protecting the privacy of the resident.... [I]t seems clear that Section 107 of the ordinance, which provides for the posting of “No Solicitation” signs and which is not challenged in this case, coupled with the resident’s unquestioned right to refuse to engage in conversation with unwelcome visitors, provides ample protection for the unwilling listener....

Exploring Constitutional Conflicts