In Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U.S. 141 (1943), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that upheld the conviction of a door-to-door religious solicitor in a case focusing on freedom of speech and the press. The Court maintained that such religious solicitation advanced vital freedoms of speech and the press.

Court overturned conviction for passing out religious flyers

Thelma Martin, a Jehovah’s Witness, was convicted in an Ohio state trial court of distributing a flyer advertising an upcoming religious meeting. The Ohio Supreme Court dismissed her appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court accepted her petition. Justice Hugo L. Black authored the 5-4 decision that overturned the conviction. Black argued that American practice left the decision about whether individuals would listen to visiting colporteurs (distributors of religious literature) to occupants of the houses rather than to governments, although the government could determine reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. In his opinion, Black also signaled support for model legislation proposed by the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers that would make it illegal for individuals to call on a house where the householders themselves had previously indicated a desire not to be called on.

Justice Francis W. Murphy’s concurring opinion focused on the free exercise claims involved in this case. Like Black, he argued that the Struthers law went beyond reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions of such expression.

Dissenters argued for privacy

Justice Felix Frankfurter’s dissent emphasized that this law was a response to invasions of personal privacy and peace and counseled deference to the City of Struthers.

In another dissent, joined by Justice Owen J. Roberts and Robert H. Jackson, Justice Stanley F. Reed argued that the long-standing acceptance of such solicitations did not elevate the practice to a constitutional right. He wrote that the city law was justified by changing conditions. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed Martin in other cases, such as Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton (2002), which rejected a similar Ohio city ordinance limiting door-to-door activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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