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Legal Q & A

Matthew Weng
Matthew Weng
League Staff Attorney

Local Free Speech Issues

Q A number of residents have recently expressed concern about safety issues with door to door solicitations. Often times strangers will knock on doors after school but before the parents are home. What can be done about the security concerns residents have about door-to-door solicitations?

A The municipality may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on all door-to-door canvassing. The residents themselves may take steps such as posting “No Soliciting” signs on their property.

In Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton, 536 US 150, the United States Supreme Court struck down a requirement that anyone seeking to go door-to-door in the township first obtain a permit because it violated the First Amendment’s protections of free speech.

In that same case, the Court stated, “the posting of ‘No Solicitation’ signs…which is not challenged in this case, coupled with the resident’s unquestioned right to refuse to engage in conversation with unwelcome visitors, provides ample protection for the unwilling listener.”

However, earlier in the decision the Court stated, “Had this provision been construed to apply only to commercial activities and the solicitation of funds, arguably the ordinance would have been tailored to the village’s interest in protecting the privacy of its residents and preventing fraud…” and thus presumably upheld.

I believe the town can address the concerns of the residents and avoid a Constitutional issue if the town limits any ordinance requiring a permit to commercial speech and specifically exempt non-profits, religious organizations and political speech. The township should also not allow anyone who completes the permit application to be denied a permit. Anyone and everyone who complies with the ordinance should receive a permit. This avoids any arbitrary denials or accusations that the township seeks to restrict certain types of speech.

The town should also make use of a “no solicitation” list that residents may place themselves on. Such a list would be given to any commercial applicant seeking to engage in solicitation. This allows residents to let solicitors know ahead of time that they do not wish to be disturbed. Finally, the town may desire to provide “Do Not Solicit” stickers or signs for residents to display giving an indication to all door knockers that the resident is not interested

Q Is it possible to establish the Town Hall as a “neutral zone” where people may not solicit or hand out literature?

A Yes. As mentioned in the above answer, towns may place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, including solicitations and literature, as long as those restrictions are content neutral.

The town hall is a place where the business of the town is conducted. Such important business can be disturbed or prevented when solicitors, protestors, or those passing out leaflets are able to gather. It is also a place for members of the public to obtain information, pay their bills, etc, which can also be disturbed or prevented by protestors.

There are cases, albeit from many years ago, that upheld restrictions on free speech in highways and parks because such speech was disturbing the ability of the rest of the public to use those highways and parks.

I believe that a restriction on all public speech, essentially making the town hall a “neutral zone,” would be upheld as a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction.

Q How may Council maintain order and focus at council meetings and not degenerate into political shouting matches?

A The Council may only allow public comments for a specified period of time during the meeting, and may limit the amount of time each resident has to speak.

The Open Public Meetings Act gives residents attendance rights at Council Meetings, but it gives residents greater rights to participation than they previously enjoyed. Indeed, in OPMA it states that the public body may regulate and restrict public participation.

Several cases have upheld the ability of a municipality to limit the time for public comment and for each speaker to comment. I would recommend setting aside 5 minutes per speaker. If many people wish to speak and the meeting runs long, I would recommend cutting off time for public comment at half an hour.

If things do degenerate and a person refuses to stop speaking or becomes disruptive, the chair of the meeting, normally either the mayor or the council president, may ask that the person be removed. The person should receive adequate warning that their behavior is disruptive. If they continue, the chair may order the police to remove the person from the meeting


This column is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as legal advice.

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