The Supreme Court Accepts the Case

IN RECENT YEARS, the Supreme Court has annually accepted for formal written opinions some 80 to 90 cases out of more than 7,000 requests​—a little over 1 percent!

In May 2001, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed their Petition for a Writ of Certiorari (permission to review the case) to the Supreme Court, asking: “Are religious ministers engaged in a Scripturally based centuries-old practice of communicating their religious beliefs from door to door constitutionally equivalent to peddlers of merchandise, subject to the prior restraint of obtaining municipal permission to speak about the Bible or offer Bible-based literature at no cost?”

On October 15, 2001, Watchtower’s Legal Department was notified that the U.S. Supreme Court had accepted Watchtower  Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., et al. v. Village of Stratton et al. for review!

The Court limited its acceptance of the case to a specific freedom of speech issue, that is, whether the First Amendment’s protection of free speech includes the right of people to speak to others about a cause without first having to identify themselves to some governmental authority.

Now the case would have to be argued orally in front of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Witnesses would have their lawyers; and the Village of Stratton, its opposing team. How would matters turn out in that forum?

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WHAT IS THE FIRST AMENDMENT?

“AMENDMENT I (THE ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION; FREEDOM OF RELIGION, SPEECH, PRESS, ASSEMBLY, PETITION) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”​—The U.S. Constitution.

“The First Amendment is the basis of the democratic process in the United States. The First Amendment forbids Congress to pass laws restricting freedom of speech, of the press, of peaceful assembly, or of petition. Many people consider freedom of speech the most important freedom and the foundation of all other freedoms. The First Amendment also forbids Congress to pass laws establishing a state religion or restricting religious freedom.” (The World Book Encyclopedia) Interestingly, in Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), a landmark decision also involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s guarantees preclude not just “Congress” (the federal government) but also local authorities (state and municipal) from passing laws that would unconstitutionally infringe on First Amendment rights.

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The issue involved affects various forms of door-to-door approaches

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Photograph by Franz Jantzen, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States