Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton Case Brief

Summary of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton (2002), US Supreme Court, 536 U.S. 150

Procedural Posture: P challenged a village ordinance requiring a permit for door-to-door solicitation. District Court upheld ordinance (modified) and Appellate Court affirmed. P appeals to Sup. Ct.

Facts: Village passed an ordinance prohibiting canvassers and other solicitors from entering private property in the village without a permit. No charge or difficulty getting permit. Residents can fill out a ‘No Solicitation’ form, checking those types of solicitations they wish to exempt from the ban. Jehovah’s Witnesses began canvassing and did not seek a permit. They said they did not get a permit because they felt it was their duty to preach and to have to get a permit is an insult to God.

Issues: Is the village ordinance narrowly tailored enough to serve a compelling interest without violating the First Amendment? >No.

Holding: Reversed and remanded.

Rationale: Even though village says that it adopted the ordinance to serve interests of privacy and protection, it has never contended that the ordinance should be interpreted that narrowly. Consequently, had the effect of blocking non-commercial free speech. The ordinance did not allow for substantial protection of anonymity. Requiring a permit imposes an objective burden on some speech of citizens holding religious or patriotic views. They may choose silence over government intervention. Ordinance bans too much spontaneous speech. Ordinance fails scrutiny.

Concurrence1: (Breyer, Souter, and Ginsburg) Write separately to note that the dissent’s contention of crime prevention is a weak one.

Concurrence2: (Scalia, Thomas) Write separately to note that one of causes of ordinance’s invalidity is that some people with firm convictions would choose silence over getting the permit.

Dissent: (Rehnquist) Crime prevention aspect of similar statutes. Objects to the court applying strict scrutiny, as if regulations of speech taking place on someone else’s private property warrant greater scrutiny than speech taking place in public forums. (That is essentially what the court did here.)

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