MURDOCK v. PENNSYLVANIA
The Borough of Jeannette, Pennsylvania mandated that all solicitors that sold goods within the borough purchase a solicitation license. Robert Murdock was a Jehovah's Witness who canvassed door to door within Jeannette, offering religious texts in exchange for donations. He and other Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested for their solicitation of their texts. They were convicted and fined for violating Jeannette's ordinance. The Jehovah's Witnesses appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, alleging that the ordinance violated the Free Speech, Free Press, and Free Exercise of Religion clauses of the First Amendment. The Superior Court upheld the ordinance and their convictions, and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declined to hear their appeal.
Did Jeannette's ordinance violate the Freedom of Speech, Press, and Religion clauses of the First Amendment?
Yes. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and held the ordinance unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas characterized the Jehovah's Witnesses' activities in the borough as "more than preaching" and "more than distribution of religious literature." Their door-to-door activities, though unconventional, "occupie[d] the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits." The Court recognized the need of the Jehovah's Witnesses to sustain themselves. Though the organization solicited donations in their distribution of literature, "freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion are available to all, not merely to those who can pay their own way." While the borough did have an interest in preserving the public peace, the Jehovah's Witnesses were soliciting "peacefully and quietly." The ordinance did not further the borough's interest in restricting the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and was therefore unconstitutional.