Leafleting, Handbilling, and the Like

Leafleting, Handbilling, and the Like.—In Lovell v. City of Griffin,1286 the Court struck down a permit system applying to the distribution of circulars, handbills, or literature of any kind. The First Amendment, the Court said, “necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. These indeed have been historic weapons in the defense of liberty, as the pamphlets of Thomas Paine and others in our own history abundantly attest.”1287 State courts, responding to what appeared to be a hint in Lovell that prevention of littering and other interests might be sufficient to sustain a flat ban on literature distribution,1288 upheld total prohibitions and were reversed. “Mere legislative preferences or beliefs respecting matters of public convenience may well support regulation directed at other personal activities, but be insufficient to justify such as diminishes the exercise of rights so vital to the maintenance of democratic institutions .... We are of the opinion that the purpose to keep the streets clean and of good appearance is insufficient to justify an ordinance which prohibits a person rightfully on a public street from handing literature to one willing to receive it. Any burden imposed upon the city authorities in cleaning and caring for the streets as an indirect consequence of such distribution results from the constitutional protection of the freedom of speech and press.”1289 In Talley v. California,1290 the Court struck down an ordinance which banned all handbills that did not carry the name and address of the author, printer, and sponsor; conviction for violating the ordinance was set aside on behalf of one distributing leaflets urging boycotts against certain merchants because of their employment discrimination. The basis of the decision is not readily ascertainable. On the one hand, the Court celebrated anonymity. “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all .... [I]dentification and fear of reprisal might deter perfectly peaceful discussion of public matters of importance.”1291 On the other hand, responding to the City’s defense that the ordinance was aimed at providing a means to identify those responsible for fraud, false advertising, and the like, the Court noted that it “is in no manner so limited . . . [and] [t]herefore we do not pass on the validity of an ordinance limited to these or any other supposed evils.”1292

1286 303 U.S. 444 (1938).

1287 303 U.S. at 452.

1288 303 U.S. at 451.

1289 Schneider v. Town of Irvington, 308 U.S. 147, 161, 162 (1939). The Court noted that the right to distribute leaflets was subject to certain obvious regulations, id. at 160, and called for a balancing, with the weight inclined to the First Amendment rights. See also Jamison v. Texas, 318 U.S. 413 (1943).

1290 362 U.S. 60 (1960).

1291 362 U.S. at 64, 65.

1292 362 U.S. at 64. In Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241 (1967), the Court directed a lower court to consider the constitutionality of a statute which made it a criminal offense to publish or distribute election literature without identification of the name and address of the printer and of the persons sponsoring the literature. The lower court voided the law, but changed circumstances on a new appeal caused the Court to dismiss. Golden v. Zwickler, 394 U.S. 103 (1969).

Talley’s anonymity rationale was strengthened in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n,1293 invalidating Ohio’s prohibition on the distribution of anonymous campaign literature. There is a “respected tradition of anonymity in the advocacy of political causes,” the Court noted, and neither of the interests asserted by Ohio justified the limitation. The State’s interest in informing the electorate was “plainly insufficient,” and, while the more weighty interest in preventing fraud in the electoral process may be accomplished by a direct prohibition, it may not be accomplished indirectly by an indiscriminate ban on a whole category of speech. Ohio could not apply the prohibition, therefore, to punish anonymous distribution of pamphlets opposing a referendum on school taxes.1294

The handbilling cases were distinguished in City Council v. Taxpayers for Vincent,1295 in which the Court held that a city may prohibit altogether the use of utility poles for posting of signs. While a city’s concern over visual blight could be addressed by an anti-littering ordinance not restricting the expressive activity of distributing handbills, in the case of utility pole signs “it is the medium of expression itself” that creates the visual blight. Hence, the city’s prohibition, unlike a prohibition on distributing handbills, was narrowly tailored to curtail no more speech than necessary to accomplish the city’s legitimate purpose.1296 Ten years later, however, the Court unanimously invalidated a town’s broad ban on residential signs that permitted only residential identification signs, “for sale” signs, and signs warning of safety hazards.1297 Prohibiting homeowners from displaying political, religious, or personal messages on their own property entirely foreclosed “a venerable means of communication that is unique and important,” and that is “an unusually cheap form of communication” without viable alternatives for many residents.1298 The ban was thus reminiscent of total bans on leafleting, distribution of literature, and door-to-door solicitation that the Court had struck down in the 1930s and 1940s. The prohibition in Vincent was distinguished as not removing a “uniquely valuable or important mode of communication,” and as not impairing citizens’ ability to communicate.1299

1293 514 U.S. 334 (1995).

1294 In Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, 525 U.S. 182 (1999), the Court struck down a Colorado statute requiring initiative-petition circulators to wear identification badges. It found that “the restraint on speech in this case is more severe than was the restraint in McIntyre“ because “[p]etition circulation is a less fleeting encounter, for the circulator must endeavor to persuade electors to sign the petition.... [T]he badge requirement compels personal name identification at the precise moment when the circulator’s interest in anonymity is greatest.” Id. at 199. In Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton, 122 S. Ct. 2080, 2089 (2002), concern for the right to anonymity was one reason that the Court struck down an ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to engage in door-to-door advocacy without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit.

1295 466 U.S. 789 (1984).

1296 Justice Brennan argued in dissent that adequate alternative forms of communication were not readily available because handbilling or other person-to-person methods would be substantially more expensive, and that the regulation for the sake of aesthetics was not adequately justified.

1297 City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43 (1994).

1298 512 U.S. at 54, 57.

1299 512 U.S. at 54. The city’s legitimate interest in reducing visual clutter could be addressed by “more temperate” measures, the Court suggested. Id. at 58.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014