Supreme Court Rules for Freedom of Speech

THE DECISIVE DAY came on June 17, 2002, when the Supreme Court published its written opinions. What was the decision? Newspaper headlines told the story. The New York Times proclaimed: “Court Strikes Down Curb on Visits by Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The Columbus Dispatch of Ohio stated: “High Court Invalidates Permit Requirement.” The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Ohio, simply said: “Solicitors Don’t Need OK From City Hall.” The Op/Ed page of USA Today proclaimed: “Free Speech Wins.”

The lower-court decisions against Jehovah’s Witnesses were reversed by a vote of 8 to 1! The official 18-page Opinion of the Court was written by Justice John Paul Stevens. The decision was a sweeping reaffirmation of the First Amendment protection accorded the public ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In its review the Court explained that the Witnesses did not apply for a permit because they claim that “they derive their authority to preach from Scripture.” Then the Court quoted the testimony cited in their brief: “For us to seek a permit from a municipality to preach we feel would almost be an insult to God.”

The Opinion of the Court stated: “For over 50 years, the Court has invalidated restrictions on door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering. It is more than historical accident that most of these cases involved First Amendment challenges brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses, because door-to-door canvassing is mandated by their religion. As we noted in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, . . . (1943), the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘claim to follow the example of Paul, teaching “publicly, and from house to house.” Acts 20:20. They take literally the mandate of the  Scriptures, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15. In doing so they believe that they are obeying a commandment of God.’”

The Opinion then quoted again from the 1943 case: “This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits. It has the same claim to protection as the more orthodox and conventional exercises of religion.” Quoting a 1939 case, the Opinion stated: “To require a censorship through license which makes impossible the free and unhampered distribution of pamphlets strikes at the very heart of the constitutional guarantees.”​—Italics theirs.

The Court then made a significant observation: “The cases demonstrate that efforts of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to resist speech regulation have not been a struggle for their rights alone.” The Opinion explained that the Witnesses “are not the only ‘little people’ who face the risk of silencing by regulations like the Village’s.”

The Opinion went on to state that the ordinance “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. . . . A law requiring a permit to engage in such speech constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition.” The Opinion then spoke of “the pernicious effect of such a permit requirement.”

Threat of Crimes

What about the view that the permit is a safeguard against burglars and other criminals? The Court argued: “Despite recognition of these interests as legitimate, our precedent is clear that there must be a balance between these interests and the effect of the regulations on First Amendment rights.”

The Court’s Opinion continued: “It seems unlikely that the absence of a permit would preclude criminals from knocking on doors and engaging in conversations not covered by the ordinance. They might, for example, ask for directions or permission to use the telephone, . . . or they might register under a false name with impunity.”

Harking back to decisions of the 1940’s, the Court wrote: “The rhetoric used in the World War II-era opinions that repeatedly saved petitioners’ [Watch Tower Society] coreligionists from petty prosecutions reflected the Court’s  evaluation of the First Amendment freedoms that are implicated in this case.”

What was the Court’s conclusion? “The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. It is so ordered.”

Thus, the end of the matter was, as stated in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Court Backs Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and that by a majority of 8 to 1.

What of the Future?

How have Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nearby Wellsville Congregation viewed this victory in the Supreme Court? There certainly is no reason to boast about it at the expense of the inhabitants of Stratton. The Witnesses harbor no ill will toward the good people of the village. Gregory Kuhar, a local Witness, said: “This court case was not something that we wanted to do. The ordinance in itself was just wrong. What we did was not just for us, but for everyone.”

The facts show that the Witnesses have gone out of their way not to provoke the local people. Gene Koontz, another Witness, explained: “The last time we preached in Stratton was March 7, 1998​—well over four years ago.” He added: “I was personally told that I would be arrested. We’ve had a lot of reports during the years of police threatening us with arrest. Then when we asked to see the ordinance in print, we never got an answer.”

Koontz added: “We would rather have good relations with our neighbors. If some do not want us to visit them, we respect that decision. But there are others who are friendly and who welcome a conversation about the Bible.”

Gregory Kuhar explained: “We didn’t pursue this case to antagonize the people of Stratton. We simply wanted to establish legally our freedom of speech under the Constitution.”

He continued: “Eventually, we hope to go back to Stratton. I’d be happy to be the first one to knock on a door when we return. In accordance with Christ’s command, return we must.”

The outcome of “Watchtower v. Village of Stratton” has had far-reaching effects. After learning of the Supreme Court decision, a number of U.S. municipal officials recognized that local ordinances could no longer be used to restrict the evangelizing work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To date, door-to-door preaching difficulties have been resolved in approximately 90 communities in the United States.

[Box on page 9]


Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar and director of education programs at the First Amendment Center, wrote the above words on the Freedom Forum Web site, under the title “The Freedom of Faith.” Haynes continued: “Last week [the Witnesses] chalked up their 48th Supreme Court victory​—an extraordinary line of cases that have significantly expanded First Amendment protections for all Americans.” He cautioned: “Remember this: If the government can restrict the freedom of one faith, it has the power to restrict the freedom of any faith​—or all faiths. . . . Of course, people have a right not to listen​—and to close the door. But the government shouldn’t have the authority to decide who gets to knock on the door. So two cheers for the Supreme Court.”

Haynes concludes: “We all owe the Jehovah’s Witnesses a debt of gratitude. No matter how many times they’re insulted, run out of town, or even physically attacked, they keep on fighting for their (and thus our) freedom of religion. And when they win, we all win.”

[Box/Pictures on page 10, 11]


“Court Backs Jehovah’s Witnesses; Door-to-Door Ministry Doesn’t Require a Permit

In a life of knocking on doors as Jehovah’s Witnesses, [the Witnesses] always believed they had God behind them. Now they have the U.S. Supreme Court, as well.”​—Chicago Sun-Times, June 18, 2002.

“Free Speech Wins

The next time some Jehovah’s Witnesses interrupt your dinner, you might consider thanking them. In gritty dedication to their religious principles, this out-of-the-mainstream denomination of scarcely 1 million members [in the United States] has probably done more than any other institution to secure freedom of speech for individual Americans. . . .

“For the Witnesses, going to the high court is a familiar routine. In more than two dozen cases over 65 years, they’ve effectively fought against the tyranny of the majority.”​—USA TODAY, June 18, 2002.

“Door-to-Door Soliciting Ruled Constitutional Right. Decision a Victory for Jehovah’s Witnesses

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that politicians, religious groups, the Girl Scouts and others have a constitutional right to go door-to-door promoting their causes without first getting permission from local officials.”​—San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 2002.

“Supreme Court: You Can’t Keep Jehovah’s Witnesses, Girl Scouts From Knocking

WASHINGTON​—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 today. . . .

“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 directly to someone’s door.”​—Star Tribune, Minneapolis, June 18, 2002.

[Picture on page 9]

Justice Stevens

[Credit Line]

Stevens: Collection, The Supreme Court Historical Society/Joseph Bailey