The court struck down a local law that leaders of a small Ohio town said was meant to protect elderly residents from being bothered at home--a law challenged by the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion calls for doorstep proselytizing.
With two weeks left in the court term, the justices still have more than a dozen high-profile cases to decide, including legal disputes involving the death penalty and government vouchers for church schools.
In other cases decided Monday, the justices:
- Ruled that police who want to look for drugs or evidence of other crimes do not have to first inform public transportation passengers of their legal rights. The court rejected arguments that passengers, confined to small spaces, might feel coerced.
- Decided that the Internal Revenue Service can use estimates of cash tips received by restaurant staff to make sure it is collecting enough Social Security taxes from their employers.
- Rejected arguments that Texas redistricting hurt Hispanics. The justices, without hearing arguments, affirmed congressional and state legislative boundaries that favor Republicans.
-Barred Americans from seeking punitive damages from cities and government boards that refuse to build wheelchair ramps and make other accommodations for the disabled.
In the doorstep-solicitation case, 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, and that the right cannot be limited by a requirement to register by name ahead of time. "The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote. "It 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."
Two of the court's most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, agreed with the outcome of the case but did not sign on to Stevens' reasoning. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented.
Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the court got it right. "It seems that the court has simply said once again that you shouldn't have to get the government's permission to spread your views," Lynn said. "People have the right not to listen or to close their doors, but the government is not supposed to be in that door closing business."