WASHINGTON (AP) - The Constitution protects the right of missionaries, politicians and others to knock on doors without first getting permission from local authorities, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court struck down a local law that leaders of a small Ohio town said was meant to protect elderly residents from being bothered at home. The ruling is a victory for the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion calls for doorstep proselytizing.
By a vote of 8 to 1, the court reasoned that the First Amendment right to free speech includes the entitlement to take a message or idea directly to someone's door, and that the right cannot be limited by a requirement to register by name ahead of time.
"The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
"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."
Two of the court's most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, agreed only with the outcome of the case and did not sign on to Stevens' reasoning.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented.
Stratton, Ohio, required a permit for any door-to-door soliciting by salesmen or anyone else. Theoretically, girl scouts would have to get such a permit to sell cookies, as would a candidate for the school board or a student raising money for a class trip.
The majority in Monday's case said the law was too broad. Had it been much more narrowly written to guard against unwanted sales calls, it might have withstood constitutional scrutiny, Stevens wrote.
People who do not want to listen to a political candidate or other canvasser need not do so, the court said. Residents may post a "No Solicitations" sign at the door, or simply refuse to engage in conversation.
The court also rejected the town's claim that the law helped prevent crime. There is no evidence that a criminal casing a neighborhood would be deterred by the need to get a permit, the court said.