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Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of N.Y., Inc. v. Vill. of Stratton - 536 U.S. 150, 122 S. Ct. 2080 (2002)

Rule:

Hand distribution of religious tracts 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. 

Facts:

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, the appellate 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, 131 L. Ed. 2d 426, 115 S. Ct. 1511; 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 earlier cases protecting the Jehovah's Witnesses ministry. Petitioners sought certiorari review.

Issue:

Was the ordinance that 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 constitutional?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court determined that the ordinance, requiring 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 contained one's name, violated the First Amendment protection accorded to anonymous pamphleteering or discourse. The breadth and unprecedented nature of the ordinance, along with the failure to tailor the ordinance to the village's stated interests, rendered the ordinance invalid. The village's interest in preventing fraud could not support the ordinance's application to the religious organizations, to political campaigns, or to enlisting support for unpopular causes.

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