WASHINGTON -- The Constitution guarantees religious groups, politicians, Girl Scouts and others the right to knock on their neighbors' doors without stopping at town hall for permission, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a broad endorsement of free speech rights.
By a vote of 8-1 the high court struck down an Ohio village's law that required anyone going door to door to register with authorities and carry a permit. Violators could be fined $100.
"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," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
The mayor of tiny Stratton, Ohio, population 287, said the law was intended to protect elderly residents against flimflam artists or pesky salesmen. The Jehovah's Witnesses objected on free speech grounds. The church also said the law was largely aimed at keeping its missionaries out of town.
The law was too broad and affected too many kinds of encounters, Stevens wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
He noted that residents could file a form to specifically allow visits from Girl Scouts, Christmas carolers or Halloween trick-or-treaters, among others, but that the law seemed to ban those groups from operating unless they had a permit.
Had the ordinance been narrower, it might have withstood constitutional scrutiny, Stevens wrote for the majority.
Two of the court's most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, agreed with the outcome of the case but did not sign on to all of Stevens' reasoning.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented. His dissent mentioned the killings of two college professors in New Hampshire by two teen-agers who said they got into the house on the pretext of taking a survey.
Stratton Village Solicitor Frank Bruzzese defended the law, saying it was "narrowly drawn to regulate only entry onto private property." Town leaders said they are still evaluating their next step.
Monday's case turned in part on the notion of anonymity when speaking one's mind.
The court already has held that the Constitution gives people the right to anonymously distribute campaign literature. Monday's ruling extends that right to door-to-door soliciting for other causes.