Court Considers Village Requirement For Door-To-Door Permits

By ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The many steel mill retirees among Stratton, Ohio's 287 souls do not wish to be pestered at their homes by salesmen or proselytizing Jehovah's Witnesses, the town's mayor says.

The solution seemed simple: Require anyone who wants to go door-to- door in Stratton to get a permit first. About 15 people have done so since the town passed its ordinance in 1998, but no Jehovah's Witnesses are on the list.

The church challenged the local law as an unconstitutional limit on the right to free speech, and on Tuesday its lawyer seemed to find some sympathetic ears at the Supreme Court.

The church needs no one's permission to pursue what it views as its mission to take religion to other's front doors, lawyer Paul Polidoro argued. Two lower federal courts found the permit rules evenhanded, though, so the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

"Our activity lies at the heart of the First Amendment," Polidoro said.

The court already has held that the Constitution gives people the right to distribute anonymous campaign literature. A ruling for the church in this case would extend that right to anonymous door-to-door soliciting for any cause.

Stratton's ordinance applies to commercial salesmen, school groups selling candy bars or political candidates eager to shake hands.

Anyone who wants to go door-to-door must first go to the mayor's office and fill out a permit application. The form requires a name and other identifying information and is kept on file. There is no fee.

The solicitor gets a paper permit, which must be carried for display on demand to the town's one police officer or to any resident who asks.

"You think it's a beautiful idea that I have to ask the government for permission before I can go down the street ... and say, 'I want to talk to you about the situation with garbage pickup?'" an incredulous Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked the town's lawyer. "That's astounding."

Justice Antonin Scalia mockingly read a portion of the town ordinance that refers to the "privilege" of door-to-door solicitation.

"Privilege?" he exclaimed, implying that speaking one's mind is a protected right, not a privilege that the government can grant or deny.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor drew laughter by asking about a trick-or-treater or a Christmas caroler.

"The purpose is to prevent annoyance of the property owner" and to offer a measure of protection from scam artists or more dangerous criminals, town lawyer Abraham Cantor said. Homeowners can file their own form exempting trick-or-treaters, lawyers said.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist noted that the teen-agers accused of killing two Dartmouth professors allegedly cased the neighborhood by pretending to be taking a survey.

But Scalia, usually an ideological ally of Rehnquist's, was having none of it.

"The safest societies in the world are totalitarian dictatorships," Scalia said. "There's very little crime. One of the costs of liberty is the risk of criminal activity."

No one has been denied a permit to solicit in Stratton and no one has been prosecuted under the law.

"We treat everyone equally. You come in, you sign and you go about your business," Mayor John Abdalla said before Tuesday's argument.

"I'm not picking on Jehovah's Witnesses. If they want to come in, they can," said Abdalla, 66, a retired boilermaker. "They just have to follow the rules on the books."

The church claims the ordinance was meant to keep them out of town. The town has had a testy history with the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in nearby Wellsville.

The case is Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. v. Village of Stratton, Ohio, et al., 00-1737.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)