To condition the solicitation of aid for the perpetuation of religious views or systems upon a license, the grant of which rests in the exercise of a determination by state authority as to what is a religious cause, is to lay a forbidden burden upon the exercise of liberty protected by the Constitution.
Plaintiff Newton Cantwell and his sons, who were all members of Jehova’s Witness, were selling religious materials door-to door and approaching people on the street. However, two pedestrians reacted angrily upon hearing their protestations. Cantwell and his sons were arrested and charged for violating a Connecticut statute requiring solicitors to obtain prior certification, and also for inciting a breach of the peace.
Did the convictions violate plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment?
The Supreme Court held that the Connecticut statute deprived the plaintiffs of their liberty without due process of law. Under the statute, the Secretary of the Public Welfare Council was authorized to withhold his approval if he finds that a cause was not a religious one. This authority, according to the Court, was in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
While general regulations on solicitation were held to be legitimate, censorships and restrictions based on religious grounds were not. The Court also held that while the maintenance of public order was a valid state interest, it could not be used to justify the suppression of "free communication of views." The plaintffs’ messages and protests, while offensive to many, did not threaten "bodily harm," and was considered as protected religious speech.