Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a city ordinance which requires canvassers to obtain a permit and reveal identifying information before going door-to-door to spread their political or religious messages violates the First Amendment.
Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.
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.