Solicitor-registration ordinance unconstitutional, high court rules Jehovah's Witnesses' free-speech rights upheld

By Robert J. Bruss Tribune Media Services Dec. 7, 2002

In an effort to prevent fraud and crime and to protect residents' privacy, the Village of Stratton enacted an ordinance requiring door-to-door solicitors to register with the mayor's office to obtain a free solicitation permit. The ordinance also included a list of "do not disturb" residents, who wished not to be visited.

However, the Jehovah's Witnesses religious organization sued the village. The Jehovah's Witnesses sought to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance because it allegedly interferes with their exercise of free-speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. District Court and the Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ordinance as valid. The Jehovah's Witnesses appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you were a Supreme Court justice, would you rule the home solicitor registration ordinance is constitutional?

The justices, in an 8-1 opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, said no.

This ordinance that requires prior registration of door-to-door solicitors and displaying of individual solicitation permits violates the First Amendment free-speech rights of the U.S. Constitution, Stevens explained.

The alleged three purposes of the town ordinance, to prevent fraud and crime and to protect privacy, are not likely to be accomplished by the ordinance, he said. Anyone can register and immediately be given a free solicitation permit.

Protecting the free-speech rights of solicitors is far more important, he continued. If local residents do not want to be solicited, they can post a "do not solicit" sign, he said.

Based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Watchtower Bible and Tract Society vs. Village of Stratton, 122 S.Ct. 2080.

Robert J. Bruss is a real-estate broker, attorney and syndicated real-estate columnist. Write to him at 251 Park Road, Burlingame, CA 94010, or visit

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