Opinions & Commentaries

Appellant, Alma Lovell, was convicted in the Recorder's Court of the City of Griffin, Georgia, of the violation of a city ordinance and was sentenced to imprisonment for fifty days in default of the payment of a fine of fifty dollars. The violation, which is not denied, consisted of the distribution without the required permission of a pamphlet and magazine in the nature of religious tracts, setting forth the gospel of the "Kingdom of Jehovah." Appellant did not apply for a permit, as she regarded herself as sent "by Jehovah to do His work," and that such an application would have been "an act of disobedience to His commandment."

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Newton Cantwell and his two sons, Jesse and Russell, members of a group known as Jehovah's witnesses, and claiming to be ordained ministers, were arrested in New Haven, Connecticut, and each was charged by information in five counts, with statutory and common law offenses. After trial each of them was convicted of the common law offense of inciting a breach of the peace. On appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court the conviction of Jesse Cantwell was affirmed, but the conviction of Newton and Russell on that count was reversed and a new trial ordered as to them.

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Overruled

Lillian Gobitis, aged twelve, and her brother William, aged ten, were expelled from the public schools of Minersville, Pennsylvania, for refusing to salute the national flag as part of a daily school exercise. The local Board of Education required both teachers and pupils to participate in this ceremony. The Gobitis family are affiliated with "Jehovah's Witnesses," for whom the Bible as the Word of God is the supreme authority. The children had been brought up conscientiously to believe that such a gesture of respect for the flag was forbidden by command of Scripture. The Gobitis children were of an age for which Pennsylvania makes school attendance compulsory. Thus, they were denied a free education, and their parents had to put them into private schools. To be relieved of the financial burden thereby entailed, their father, on behalf of the children and in his own behalf, brought this suit.

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Appellants are five "Jehovah's Witnesses" who, with sixty-three others of the same persuasion, were convicted in the municipal court of Manchester, New Hampshire, for violation of a state statute prohibiting a "parade or *571 procession" upon a public street without a special license.

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Appellant, a member of the sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses, was convicted in the municipal court of Rochester, New Hampshire, for violation of Chapter 378, § 2, of the Public Laws of New Hampshire:"No person shall address any offensive, derisive or annoying word to any other person who is lawfully in any street or other public place, nor call him by any offensive or derisive name, nor make any noise or exclamation in his presence and hearing with intent to deride, offend or annoy him, or to prevent him from pursuing his lawful business or occupation."The complaint charged that appellant, "with force and arms, in a certain public place in said city of Rochester, to wit, on the public sidewalk on the easterly side of Wakefield Street, near unto the entrance of the City Hall, did unlawfully repeat, the words following, addressed to the complainant, that is to say, `You are a God damned racketeer' and `a damned Fascist and the whole government of Rochester are Fascists or agents of Fascists,' the same being offensive, derisive and annoying words and names."Upon appeal there was a trial de novo of appellant before a jury in the Superior Court. He was found guilty and the judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State. 91 N.H. 310, 18 A.2d 754.

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Overruled

By writ of certiorari in Nos. 280 and 314 and by appeal in No. 966 we have before us the question of the constitutionality *586 of various city ordinances imposing the license taxes upon the sale of printed matter for nonpayment of which the appellant, Jobin, and the petitioners, Jones, Bowden and Sanders, all members of the organization known as Jehovah's Witnesses, were convicted.

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For centuries it has been a common practice in this and other countries for persons not specifically invited to go from home to home and knock on doors or ring doorbells to communicate ideas to the occupants or to invite them to political, religious, or other kinds of public meetings. Whether such visiting shall be permitted has in general been deemed to depend upon the will of the individual master of each household, and not upon the determination of the community. In the instant case, the City of Struthers, Ohio, has attempted to make this decision for all its inhabitants. The question to be decided is whether the City, consistently with the federal Constitution's *142 guarantee of free speech and press, possesses this power.[1]The appellant, espousing a religious cause in which she was interested — that of the Jehovah's Witnesses — went to the homes of strangers, knocking on doors and ringing doorbells in order to distribute to the inmates of the homes leaflets advertising a religious meeting. In doing so, she proceeded in a conventional and orderly fashion. For delivering a leaflet to the inmate of a home, she was convicted in the Mayor's Court and was fined $10.00 on a charge of violating the following City ordinance:"It is unlawful for any person distributing handbills, circulars or other advertisements to ring the door bell, sound the door knocker, or otherwise summon the inmate or inmates of any residence to the door for the purpose of receiving such handbills, circulars or other advertisements they or any person with them may be distributing."The appellant admitted knocking at the door for the purpose of delivering the invitation, but seasonably urged in the lower Ohio state court that the ordinance as construed and applied was beyond the power of the State because in violation of the right of freedom of press and religion as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.[2]*143 The right of freedom of speech and press has broad scope. The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance.[3] This freedom embraces the right to distribute literature, Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452, and necessarily protects the right to receive it. The privilege may not be withdrawn even if it creates the minor nuisance for a community of cleaning litter from its streets. Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147, 162. Yet the peace, good order, and comfort of the community may imperatively require regulation of the time, place and manner of distribution. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 304. No one supposes, for example, that a city need permit a man with a communicable disease to distribute leaflets on the street or to homes, or that the First Amendment prohibits a state from preventing the distribution of leaflets in a church against the will of the church authorities.

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The West Virginia State Board of Education on January 9, 1942, adopted a resolution citing from the Court's prior opinion in Gobitis and ordering that the salute to the flag become "a regular part of the program of activities in the public schools," that all teachers and pupils "shall be required to participate in the salute honoring the Nation represented by the Flag; provided, however, that refusal to salute the Flag be regarded as an act of insubordination, and shall be dealt with accordingly." Failure to conform was "insubordination," dealt with by expulsion. Readmission was denied by statute until compliance. Meanwhile, the expelled child was "unlawfully absent," and could be proceeded against as a delinquent. His parents or guardians were liable to prosecution, and, if convicted, were subject to fine not exceeding $50 and jail term not exceeding thirty days. Appellees, Jehovah's Witnesses, brought suit in the United States District Court for themselves and others similarly situated asking its injunction to restrain enforcement of these laws and regulations against them. Jehovah's Witnesses consider that the flag is an "image" within the meaning of the Biblical Second Commandment, and for that reason, they refuse to salute it.

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In 1998, the village of Stratton, Ohio, passes an ordinance designed to regulate canvassing and soliciting of its residents at their homes. The ordinance requires would-be canvassers to obtain a permit at no cost from the village. The ordinance requires canvassers to carry their permits when they go door-to-door and show their identification when asked by either the police or a resident. The ordinance imposes criminal penalties on those who fail to comply with this ordinance. In June 1999, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. and individual Jehovah Witnesses sue in federal court, seeking a declaration that the ordinance violates the First Amendment. They argue it infringes on their free-speech, free-press, free-association and free exercise of religion rights. They also argue that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it infringes on the right to engage in anonymous speech. In August 1999, U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. rules that the ordinance validly applies to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The judge determines that the plaintiffs were "canvassers" who went to homes for the purpose of "explaining their cause." The judge strikes down, or modifies, three portions of the ordinance. On Feb. 20, 2001, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the remaining portions of the ordinance in a 2-1 opinion. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton, 240 F.3d 553 (6th Cir. 2001). The panel majority determined that the ordinance was content-neutral and applied generally to everyone, rather than specifically targeting Jehovah Witnesses. The majority determined that the ordinance was designed to help prevent fraud and to protect residential privacy. The panel rejected the anonymity argument, finding that the canvassers already lose their anonymity when they reveal their physical identities at residents' doorsteps.

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