Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc. of N. Y., Inc. v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 2 (2002)

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Cite as: 536 U. S. 150 (2002)


those cases emphasize that the hand distribution of religious tracts is ages old and has the same claim as more orthodox practices to the guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, and press, e. g., id., at 109; discuss extensively the historical importance of door-to-door canvassing and pamphleteering as vehicles for the dissemination of ideas, e. g., Schneider v. State (Town of Irvington), 308 U. S. 147, 164, but recognize the legitimate interests a town may have in some form of regulation, particularly when the solicitation of money is involved, e. g., Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 306, or the prevention of burglary is a legitimate concern, Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U. S. 141, 144; make clear that there must be a balance between such interests and the effect of the regulations on First Amendment rights, e. g., ibid.; and demonstrate that the Jehovah's Witnesses have not struggled for their rights alone, but for those many who are poorly financed and rely extensively upon this method of communication, see, e. g., id., at 144-146, including nonreligious groups and individuals, see, e. g., Thomas v. Collins, 323 U. S. 516, 539-540. Pp. 160-164.

(b) The Court need not resolve the parties' dispute as to what standard of review to use here because the breadth of speech affected by the ordinance and the nature of the regulation make it clear that the Sixth Circuit erred in upholding it. There is no doubt that the interests the ordinance assertedly serves—the prevention of fraud and crime and the protection of residents' privacy—are important and that the Village may seek to safeguard them through some form of regulation of solicitation activity. However, the amount of speech covered by the ordinance raises serious concerns. Had its provisions been construed to apply only to commercial activities and the solicitation of funds, arguably the ordinance would have been tailored to the Village's interest in protecting its residents' privacy and preventing fraud. Yet, the Village's administration of its ordinance unquestionably demonstrates that it applies to a significant number of noncommercial "canvassers" promoting a wide variety of "causes." The pernicious effect of the permit requirement is illustrated by, e. g., the requirement that a canvasser be identified in a permit application filed in the mayor's office and made available for public inspection, which necessarily results in a surrender of the anonymity this Court has protected. Also central to the Court's conclusion that the ordinance does not pass First Amendment scrutiny is that it is not tailored to the Village's stated interests. Even if the interest in preventing fraud could adequately support the ordinance insofar as it applies to commercial transactions and the solicitation of funds, that interest provides no support for its application to petitioners, to political campaigns, or to enlisting support for unpopular causes. The Village's


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