Yes, Door-to-Door Canvassing Is Protected Speech



You don't have to answer the door, but a solicitor's right to knock is protected by the First Amendment, as a federal court reaffirmed this week. The case comes from an Indiana town that tried to ban door-to-door canvassing, fundraising, and peddling before 9 a.m. and "after the hour of 9 p.m. or sunset, whichever is earlier." The community also sought to make all canvassers obtain a permit, which would cost $150 to apply for and $50 per week to maintain.  

The Citizens Action Coalition (CAC) of Indiana—a nonprofit that relies on field canvassing for about 25 percent of its revenue—brought the lawsuit in 2013 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana. The group alleged that the community of Yorktown's requirements significantly limited CAC's ability to exercise its First Amendment rights. Evenings are when CAC canvassers are most likely to find individuals home, it noted, and yet the town's rules would prohibit all evening canvassing during certain times of year, when dusk can come as early as 5 p.m. CAC also said the canvasser permit fees were prohibitively expensive. Overall, Yorktown's ordinance was not narrowly tailored to serve legitimate public safety and privacy interests, the groups alleged. 

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana agreed. "Without any substantive evidence establishing an increase in the crime rate due to door-to-door solicitation," wrote Judge Richard Young in his decision, "the Town fails to show how canvassing after sunset but before 9:00 p.m. poses any greater threat to its citizens than any other person who may come to a resident's door after dark." 

As for infringing on residents' right to privacy, Young noted that the town could easily accomodate "the unwilling listener's interest" with a much less restrictive policy. "For example, the Town Council could include non-commercial advocates in the list of persons to whom a 'No Peddlers or Solicitors' sign is applicable," he noted. In addition, an unwilling party could practice the time-honored tradition of simply not answering the door. 

"Door-to-door canvassing has long played a vital role for the dissemination of ideas in our country," said Gavin M. Rose, a senior staff attorney with ACLU of Indiana, in a statement. "We are pleased that the Court recognized that the ability of government at any level to interfere with this activity is severely limited, and hope that this ruling will educate other municipalities that might consider similar legislation."

NEXT: SCOTUS to Decide How Long Cops Can Wait for a Four-Legged Search Warrant

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  1. “In addition, an unwilling party could practice the time-honored tradition of simply not answering the door.”

    I prefer the time-honored tradition of sicing by Russian wolfhound on them.

    1. …”MY Russian wolfhound”…

    2. There’s also the option of hanging lots of animal parts, bones, and skins around your place and then answering the door in a mask made out of a human face. Just sayin’.

      1. You’re the only one with enough work ethic to get that done.

        1. Oh, it’s already done. I’m proactive.

          1. Yeah, that proactiv cleared up all the blemishes on my human-face mask!

    3. Vlad Putin approves

  2. Back in the 70s, a local Republican candidate for congress came by the house to ask for my parents’ vote. He peeked in a window and saw lights on. The front door was open, so he stuck his head inside. Bad idea. Our German Shepherd saw the intruder and did what he was supposed to do – bit him on the leg.

    I can still remember my parents helping him inside and sitting him down while trying to stop the bleeding.

    Of course, being staunch Republicans, they ended up voting for him, and my mother even helped on his campaign. He won.

  3. “Trespassers will be violated.”

  4. Ah, reminds me of my time working for a political consulting company doing local options.

    Went all over Ohio and you really never knew what you would find, though there were some trends. I found that I felt safer in the inner city than I did in the country.

    Some people in rural areas were really really nasty, angry people. And their dogs were really aggressive too.

    1. Hmmmm, when were you working in Ohio?

      See my story above – this was in Beavercreek, Ohio in the – cough – late 70s.

      1. The company is based out of Columbus but we handled local options all over Ohio.

        I worked for them (Young Indep. Consultants) between jobs for one election season and then did some summer/fall stuff on the side after I got a better full-time job.

        I’m trying to remember any Dayton-area jobs, I know I haven’t done any in Beavercreek.

      2. I did a couple of Dayton jobs on, I believe the East side of Dayton proper.

        It was very hood, but I always thought that if I kept my head on a swivel, nobody would want to fuck with a 25-26 year old male who certainly wasn’t going to mess with anyone else.

        In the country though (I did run into some really sweet people btw) I had one asshat shine, at night, an industrial sized light in my face which was blinding and fucking scary.

      3. sorry I misread…I was doing this in fall 2011 and then a little bit in the summer/fall over 2012

  5. I disagree. My property, my rules.

    1. If you post a “No Solicitors” sign and someone knocks on your door anyway, you have the right to punch them in the face.

      1. Incorrect.

        If you are soliciting then perhaps you have a case.

        I, personally, was circulating a petition that required knocking on doors.

        It is a very very clearly protected 1st amendment right.

        1. “No Petitioning”

          1. It’s a 1st amendment right to circulate a petition.

            Someone in our group had the cops called on them almost every job.

            The absolute majority of the time the cops would explain to the piss ants calling the cops that it is, like I said, a 1st amendment right.

            1. That’s nice. It’s still harassment.

              1. noun
                the act or an instance of harassing, or disturbing, pestering, or troubling repeatedly; persecution:

                If they asked me or one of my co-workers to leave (whether they asked like a human being, or slammed a door in someone’s face) we left.

                Let me remind you, words have meaning. Asking someone to sign a piece of paper and leaving if they refuse is NOT harassment.

                You have a right to ask someone a damn question.

                1. If you come onto my property, disregard the “private property” sign and then ignore the “no soliciting” sign, you’re harassing me.

                  No one wants to listen to your stupid fucking questions or read your brochure.

                  “Would you like to support our cause by purchasing this $5 candybar? listening to my protected political speech?”

                2. KB, I’m sorry but you don’t seem to know what you are talking about. Your 1st Amendment Rights do not give you rights to get on my property. Indeed, the Constitution and Bill of Rights is an encumbrance ON THE GOVERNMENT, not other citizens.

                  If you came on my property and I said “No, please leave”, you would absolutely be obliged to leave. You have no right to do anything on my private property once I have invited you to get the hell off my lawn.

                  Many people have skipped the initial dialogue, and thus put a sign on their property. At that point, if you proceed onto my property, you have begun trespassing. I have told you once with written notice that you are not allowed on my land, and your right to speak does not give you the right to disregard my speech or property rights.

                  (Note: this is different from a blanket ban by the government, which is the point of this article)

                  1. If you came on my property and I said “No, please leave”, you would absolutely be obliged to leave. You have no right to do anything on my private property once I have invited you to get the hell off my lawn.

                    I don’t think that anyone is arguing otherwise.

            2. Just because you have the right to pester me doesn’t mean I have to be polite.

              Nothing physical, of course, but I will mock you severely.

            3. There is no “1st amendment right to circulate a petition”. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

              You can collect your signatures in whatever manner, provided it does not infringe the rights of others, such as by violating their property through willful trespass.

              1. But this guy really REALLY wants to force you to listen to his ramblings… on your own property. IT’S HIS 1ST AMENDMENT RIGHTS OR SOMETHING!!!

            4. It only applies to government. Thus this ruling, which invalidates a government law.

              If a private party posts a sign forbidding canvassers, or even everyone not expressly invited, then you are trespassing.

    2. I agree, except this is a town council law.

    3. Your property doesn’t extend to the whole city.

    4. What do you disagree with? The town in this case was imposing its rules on everyone’s property. I don’t think the article says that you can’t put up a sign saying “No soliciting, proselytizing, politicking or petitions” and expect people to comply. Just that they town can’t generally prohibit it.
      I think it is a good general common law assumption that unless posted otherwise, you can knock on someone’s front door and try to talk to them. Before telephones, that was the only way to call someone.

  6. This is one of the few good things about living in a gated HOA community. The solicitors can’t even make it into the neighborhood. And if they’re already in the neighborhood because they live there, everyone shuns them afterwards.

  7. “For example, the Town Council could include non-commercial advocates in the list of persons to whom a ‘No Peddlers or Solicitors’ sign is applicable,” he noted.

    Ah, that good ol’ commercial speech exception in the fine print of the 1st amendment.

    1. Yeah, I was wondering if those signs (in this town or anywhere) mean people are legally obligated to stay away or are they just suggestions? Anyone know?

      1. It depends on what you are doing.

        If you are actually selling something they usually have teeth IIRC.

        If you are petitioning like I have before, usually the cops come and are unable to actually do anything unless there are secure physical barriers to property entry.

        1. So you are a regular trespasser.

        2. Even if it is legal, you are still a dick for going to their door if they have signs or something making it clear that they don’t want unexpected callers.

  8. Maybe one it the reasons libertarians aren’t more popular might be because they have a way of making liberty sound like one royal pain in the ass.

    1. Really? A sign saying “Keep Out” is a royal pain in the ass to understand, but a law with a zillion exceptions and conditions, to be further interpreted at will by police and judges, is easy going?

    2. Nothing says “Yeah Liberty,” like “Go forth and troll the shit out of your neighbors during dinner.”

  9. Cool so lets get a rotating cast of people to ring the judges doorbell for 5 min (10 sec intervals between rings) apiece 24 hours a day. Get a few surveys together.

    If harassment on ones property is not legal because reasons, well cool, lets get to it.

    1. He didn’t say no restrictions were reasonable; the “after 9 pm” is still allowed, just not the more restrictive “after dusk.”

      1. Well that’s more reasonable, but 9pm and dusk are both entirely legitimate based upon prevailing social norms within that locality, which is purely a political question.

    2. So because a town can’t make a law restricting free speech, the judge deserves to be stalked and harassed at all hours?

        1. Free speech, bitches.

          1. You’re an idiot.


        2. Yes, free speech is free speech.

    3. Did the judge say that no one can do anything to stop petitioners going on their property, or just that the town can’t make it illegal in all cases? If it is the former, then fine, fuck the judge. But if he was just pushing the town back, it seems like the right decision.

      I think you should absolutely have the right to forbid solicitors, pettitioners, etc. from your property.

  10. They’ll see things they shouldn’t.

  11. The sign on my front door reads “DO NO KNOCK. NO Uninvited or Unexpected Callers. This is Private Property. We will not buy anything at the door, nor change utility companies, donate to charity, listen to religious or political views, participate in surveys and we don’t want to sell our house. DO NOT DISTURB.”

    1. Quite frankly we put this up because people in the area were pretending to be soliciters, knocking on doors, and then breaking into the homes where people didn’t answer. No one ever knocks:)

    2. That’s pretty good. You should have those printed up and sell them.

      1. …door to door.

      2. I actually got it on amazon

  12. What’s the big deal? It’s not like this matter was settled 73 fucking years ago.

    I hope they aren’t paying their city attorney too much for such cracker-jack legal advice.

    1. The Court had consolidated four cases that involved a similar issue ? the power of city officials to limit the distribution of handbills on city streets.

      Notably this particular bill had to do with the distribution of handbills on people’s doorsteps. Doesn’t mean the judge was necessarily wrong, just that the two cases don’t have really anything in common.

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