425 U.S. 610 (1976), 74-1329, Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell

Docket Nº:No. 74-1329
Citation:425 U.S. 610, 96 S.Ct. 1755, 48 L.Ed.2d 243
Party Name:Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell
Case Date:May 19, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 610

425 U.S. 610 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 1755, 48 L.Ed.2d 243



Mayor of Oradell

No. 74-1329

United States Supreme Court

May 19, 1976

Argued December 10, 1975



A municipal ordinance requiring that advance written notice be given to the local police department by

[a]ny person [including representatives of Borough Civic Groups and Organizations] desiring to canvass, solicit or call from house to house . . . for a recognized charitable cause, or . . . for a Federal, State, County or Municipal political campaign or cause . . . for identification only

held invalid because of vagueness. A municipality has the power to enforce reasonable door-to-door soliciting and canvassing regulations to protect its citizens from crime and undue annoyance. The Court has consistently recognized that a narrowly drawn ordinance that does not vest in municipal officials the undefined power to determine what residents will hear or see may serve these interests consistent with the First Amendment. The ordinance in question must fall, however, because, in certain respects, "men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning." Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391. First, the ordinance's coverage is unclear, since it does not explain whether a "recognized charitable cause" means one recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as tax exempt, one recognized by some community agency, or one approved by some municipal official; nor is it clear what is meant by a "Federal, State, County or Municipal . . . cause," or what groups fall into the class of "Borough Civic Groups and Organizations" that the ordinance covers. Secondly, the ordinance does not sufficiently specify what those within its reach must do in order to comply. Not only is a person desiring to solicit not told what he must set forth in the required notice or what the police will consider sufficient identification, but also the ordinance does not provide explicit standards for those who apply it. Pp. 616-622.

66 N.J. 376, 331 A.2d 277, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined and in Part 3 of which BRENNAN, J., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring

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in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 623. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 630. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether a municipal ordinance requiring advance notice to be given to the local police department by

[a]ny person desiring to canvass, solicit or call from house to house . . . for a recognized charitable cause . . . or . . . political campaign or cause . . . in writing, for identification only

violates the guarantees of freedom of speech and due process of law embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment.


The Borough of Oradell, N.J., has enacted two ordinances that, together, regulate most forms of door-to-door canvassing and solicitation. A broad ordinance, No. 573, requires all solicitors to obtain a permit from the borough clerk, by making a formal application, accompanied by a description and photograph of the applicant, the description and license number of any automobile to be used in soliciting, a driver's license, and other data. The ordinance apparently requires that the chief of police approve issuance of the permit.1

Page 612

[96 S.Ct. 1757] The ordinance at issue here, Ordinance No. 598A, is an amendment to this broader scheme, and imposes no permit requirement; it covers persons soliciting for

a recognized charitable cause, or any person desiring to

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canvass, solicit or call from house to house for a Federal, State, County or Municipal political campaign or cause.

Ordinance No. 598A also applies to "representatives of Borough Civic Groups and Organizations and any veterans honorably discharged or released under honorable circumstances" from the Armed Forces. Those covered by this ordinance are required only to "notify the Police Department, in writing, for identification only." Once given, the notice is "good for the duration of the campaign or cause."2

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[96 S.Ct. 1758] Appellants are Edward Hynes, a New Jersey state assemblyman whose district was redrawn in 1973 to include the Borough of Oradell, and three Oradell registered voters. They brought suit in the Superior Court of Bergen County, N.J., seeking a declaration that Ordinance No. 598A was unconstitutional and an injunction against its enforcement. Appellant Hynes alleged that he wished to campaign for reelection in Oradell. The other

Page 615

appellants alleged either that they wished to canvass door to door in the borough for political causes or that they wished to speak with candidates who campaigned in Oradell. Each appellant claimed that the ordinance would unconstitutionally restrict such activity.

The Superior Court held the ordinance invalid for three reasons. First, the court noted that it contained no penalty clause, and hence was unenforceable under New Jersey law; second, the court held that the ordinance was not related to its announced purpose -- the prevention of crime -- since it required only candidates and canvassers to register.3 Finally, the court concluded that the ordinance was vague and overbroad -- unclear "as to what is, and what isn't required" of those who wished to canvass for political causes. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court affirmed, reaching and accepting only the first ground for the trial court's decision.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed. 66 N.J. 376, 331 A.2d 277 (1975). It noted that a penalty clause, enacted during the pendency of the appeal, cured the defect that had concerned the Appellate Division. Relying largely on a decision in a case dealing with a similar ordinance, Collingswood v. Ringgold, 66 N.J. 350, 331 A.2d 262 (1975), appeal docketed, No. 71335, the court held that Ordinance No. 598A was a legitimate exercise of the borough's police power, enacted to prevent crime and to reduce residents' fears about strangers wandering door to door. The ordinance regulated conduct -- door-to-door canvassing -- as well as speech, and, in doing so, "it could hardly be more clear." 66 N.J., at 380, 331 A.2d at 279. The ordinance, the court thought, imposed

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minimal requirements which did not offend free speech interests:

It may be satisfied in writing, suggesting that resort may be had to the mails. It need be fulfilled only once for each campaign. There is no fee. The applicant does not have to obtain or carry a card or license. And, perhaps most importantly, no discretion reposes in any municipal official to deny the privilege of calling door to door. The ordinance is plainly an identification device in its most basic form.

Ibid. Two of the court's seven members dissented. One justice thought the ordinance "plain silly" as a crime-prevention measure, for the reasons given by the trial court. Id. at 382, 331 A.2d at 280; another justice thought that the "ordinance has the potential to have a significant chilling effect on the exercise of first amendment rights, and thus infringes on these rights." Id. at 389, 331 A.2d at 284.


We are not without guideposts in considering appellants' First Amendment challenge to Ordinance No. 598A. "Adjustment of the inevitable conflict between free speech and other interests is a problem as persistent as it is perplexing," Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268, 275 (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring in result), and this Court has in several cases reviewed attempts by municipalities to regulate activities like canvassing and soliciting. Regulation in this area "must be done, and the restriction [96 S.Ct. 1759] applied, in such a manner as not to intrude upon the rights of free speech and free assembly," Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 540-541 (1945). But, in these very cases, the Court has consistently recognized a municipality's power to protect its citizens from crime and undue annoyance by regulating

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soliciting and canvasing. A narrowly drawn ordinance, that does not vest in municipal officials the undefined power to determine what messages residents will hear, may serve these important interests without running afoul of the First Amendment.

In Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938), the Court held invalid an ordinance that prohibited the distribution of "literature of any kind . . . without first obtaining written permission from the City Manager," id. at 447. The ordinance contained "no restriction in its application with respect to time or place," and was "not limited to ways which might be regarded as inconsistent with the maintenance of public order or as involving disorderly conduct, the molestation of the inhabitants, or the misuse or littering of the streets." Id. at 451.

A year later, in Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147 (1939), the Court held unconstitutional an Irvington, N.J., ordinance that dealt specifically with house-to-house canvassers and solicitors. The ordinance required them to obtain a permit, which would not issue if the chief of police decided that "the canvasser is not of good character or is canvassing for a project not free from fraud." Id. at 158. Because the Court concluded that the canvasser's "liberty to communicate with the residents of the town at their homes depends upon the exercise of the officer's discretion," id. at 164, the Court held the ordinance invalid. In Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), the Court held that a similar permit ordinance, as applied...

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