Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc. of N. Y., Inc. v. Village of Stratton,
536 U.S. 150 (2002)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Case






No. 00-1737. Argued February 26, 2002-Decided June 17,2002

Respondent Village of Stratton (Village) promulgated an ordinance that, inter alia, prohibits "canvassers" from "going in and upon" private residential property to promote any "cause" without first obtaining a permit from the mayor's office by completing and signing a registration form. Petitioners, a society and a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses that publish and distribute religious materials, brought this 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, although it did require the Village to accept narrowing constructions of several provisions. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Among its rulings, that court held that the ordinance was content neutral and of general applicability and therefore subject to intermediate scrutiny; rejected petitioners' argument that the ordinance is overbroad because it impairs the right to distribute pamphlets anonymously that was recognized in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n, 514 U. S. 334; concluded that the Village's interests in protecting its residents from fraud and undue annoyance 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; and distinguished this Court's earlier cases protecting the Jehovah's Witnesses ministry.

Held: The ordinance's provisions making it a misdemeanor to engage in door-to-door advocacy without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit violate the First Amendment as it applies to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech, and the distribution of handbills. Pp. 160-169.

(a) For over 50 years, this Court has invalidated on First Amendment grounds restrictions on door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering by Jehovah's Witnesses. See, e. g., Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U. S. 105. Although those cases do not directly control the question at issue, they yield several themes that guide the Court. Among other things,


those cases emphasize that the hand distribution of religious tracts is ages old and has the same claim as more orthodox practices to the guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, and press, e. g., id., at 109; discuss extensively the historical importance of door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering as vehicles for the dissemination of ideas, e. g., Schneider v. State (Town of Irvington), 308 U. S. 147, 164, but recognize the legitimate interests a town may have in some form of regulation, particularly when the solicitation of money is involved, e. g., Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 306, or the prevention of burglary is a legitimate concern, Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U. S. 141, 144; make clear that there must be a balance between such interests and the effect of the regulations on First Amendment rights, e. g., ibid.; and demonstrate that the Jehovah's Witnesses have not struggled for their rights alone, but for those many who are poorly financed and rely extensively upon this method of communication, see, e. g., id., at 144-146, including nonreligious groups and individuals, see, e. g., Thomas v. Collins, 323 U. S. 516,539-540. Pp. 160-164.

(b) The Court need not resolve the parties' dispute as to what standard of review to use here because the breadth of speech affected by the ordinance and the nature of the regulation make it clear that the Sixth Circuit erred in upholding it. There is no doubt that the interests the ordinance assertedly serves-the prevention of fraud and crime and the protection of residents' privacy-are important and that the Village may seek to safeguard them through some form of regulation of solicitation activity. However, the amount of speech covered by the ordinance raises serious concerns. Had its provisions 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 its residents' privacy and preventing fraud. Yet, the Village's administration of its ordinance unquestionably demonstrates that it applies to a significant number of noncommercial "canvassers" promoting a wide variety of "causes." The pernicious effect of the permit requirement is illustrated by, e. g., the requirement that a canvasser be identified in a permit application filed in the mayor's office and made available for public inspection, which necessarily results in a surrender of the anonymity this Court has protected. Also central to the Court's 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's

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

The First Amendment does not allow the government to require permits for door-to-door canvassing.


Before engaging in door-to-door canvassing, people in the Village of Stratton were required by an ordinance to get a permit from the major's office. The ordinance covered people such as political campaigners, religious proselytizers, and commercial salespeople. The permit application required a detailed registration form, although it did not require a fee. The village also allowed its residents to forestall solicitation on their property by filing a form with the major's office. They also could post "No Solicitation" signs that would prevent even people with permits from soliciting on their property, but not many people actually took those steps. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., which is an organization involved in the door-to-door evangelism of Jehovah's Witnesses, argued that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Canvassing door to door is a traditionally accepted method of communication for people who lack financial resources, and it is an integral practice of many religions. The interests asserted by the local government in support of the ordinance were the desire to protect the privacy and safety of residents as well as preventing fraud. While these are important interests, residents can protect their privacy by using the alternative measures offered by the mayor's office. It is unlikely that criminals will be stymied by the permit requirement, since they could pretend to be coming onto the property for other purposes or receive a permit under a false name, since it does not require proof of identity.

To justify the ordinance based on the fraud concern, the village would need to show that it applies only to people seeking commercial gain or financial assistance. It is worded too broadly in its current form to accept that interpretation. The importance of anonymity to exercising the right of free speech is disregarded by an ordinance that requires applicants to reveal their identities before receiving a permit. During the period of the Second World War, similar ordinances were struck down by courts, and the same reasoning still should apply.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

Conditioning door-to-door canvassing on securing a permit that the mayor cannot refuse should be constitutional. It is available to anyone who applies for it, and intermediate scrutiny rather than strict scrutiny should be the appropriate level of review. Citizen safety is an important interest that should be taken more seriously, especially since a recent murder in another town by people posing as door-to-door salesmen shows the potential dangers that can arise from permitting unrestricted canvassing.


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas

Case Commentary

There was no legitimate reason to impose this type of restriction, since canvassers without a permit had not caused harm to the community. The Court persuasively noted that residential property owners are affected to the same extent whether or not a canvasser has a permit.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.