The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the recent case of a small town requiring people who go door to door to register before doing so. CNN Article and the full text of the Supreme Court decision (including links to previous related case) are online.
From the majority opinion “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 mayors 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.“
The three examples are:
- First, as our cases involving distribution of unsigned handbills demonstrate, there are a significant number of persons who support causes anonymously. The decision to favor anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of ones privacy as possible.
- 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.
The dissenting opinion is an interesting read, it appears that the main arguement put forth is that the law enacted would serve to lessen the opportunity to crime. There seemed to be some lesser arguement that the majority opinion went against previous supreme court rulings in this area, although Chief Justice Rehnquist (the sole dissenter) didn’t pursue this arguement too thoroughly. He seemed to feel that a simple permit that was automatically granted was not a burden on free speech. Note that this was not the ordinance that was originally granted. Several Lower Courts upheld the ordinance as a whole but struck down certain parts of it, apparantly modifying it into something acceptable to Justice Rehnquist.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do respect No Trespassing signs. No Soliciting signs are a different matter. Jehovah’s Witnesses feel that they are not soliciting anything, they are merely trying to contact their neighbors with a message they feel is important. Some will ignore the sign and go ahead and ring the doorbell or knock, politely explaining the reason for the visit. Others will honor the sign, recognizing that the intention of putting the sign up is to discourage any visitor no matter the purpose. They will try to contact the individual living at that house via telephone or mail.
Some compare the Witnesses’ activities to spam, the unwanted messages recieved in email or fax. This is unfair, as spam most often conceals the sender’s identity whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses prefer to conduct their activity in person. Witnesses also employ an ‘opt out’ list, those who truly do not wish to be contacted may ask to be placed on the “Do Not Call List”. Not all Witnesses are completely aware of this, if this is truly your intention you might have to call the local Kingdom Hall and ask to talk to an ‘elder’ to ensure that you ‘opt out’. Before you do so, however, consider that even if y …