Thomas Sowell

Maybe it was not the most important case before the Supreme Court of the United States. But still it was a galling example of the way some justices casually wave aside the rights of ordinary people for the sake of some special interest that they favor.

The case involved a village in Ohio that required door-to-door solicitors to get a permit before going to the homes in that village. Jehovah's Witnesses challenged that ordinance in the courts and, just a few days ago, the Supreme Court overruled their convictions for violating that ordinance.

Anyone who has been pestered by door-to-door solicitors or by telemarketers on the phone can understand the reason for at least limiting such annoyances. But not the Supreme Court, which voted eight to one in favor of letting door-to-door solicitors continue ringing doorbells in a community where the residents obviously do not want to be bothered.

Why? Because the Constitution's right to free speech is read in Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion as if it were a right to try to get an audience, whether or not the audience wants to be intruded upon.

Unfortunately, there is a long line of cases over the past half-century or so which have given those who want to talk a priority over those who don't want to hear them. Still, this case -- Watchtower Bible & Tract Society vs. Village of Stratton -- stretches the First Amendment even further than before from the meaning it had when it was first written into the Constitution.

Prior cases have allowed communities to limit the "time, place, or manner" in which free speech could be exercised. That is, you can't start blasting away on a bullhorn at 3 a.m. in a residential neighborhood, for example, or get up on a soapbox in the middle of the street in rush-hour traffic.

In short, these cases operated on the general principle that the government has no right to censor the content of what you say, but it does have a right to limit where and how you say it. Even so, the Supreme Court has long taken a very narrow view of what limits it would permit.

Property rights, which are just as much a part of the Constitution as free speech, have been given short shrift by the courts. Neither a privately owned development nor a shopping mall could stop people from trespassing on their property to hand out leaflets. Now, with this latest case, the Supreme Court does not even allow a village to require a permit before going to homes in that village -- even though the permit was free and did not depend on the local authorities' approval of what was going to be said.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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