Thursday, June 13, 2002

Ohio town firm on tracking solicitors

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        STRATTON, Ohio — Some peddlers came to town selling raw meat from their pickup trucks. Others hawked cheap perfume in tiny bottles. Oh, and don't forget the sweeper salesmen who knocked on doors after nightfall.

        “Anyone selling anything, they all used to come here,” John Barnett, 63, recalled as he sipped coffee. He was sitting on a round green bar stool, gossiping with the other breakfast regulars at the Stratton Truck Stop. “They don't do that as much anymore.”

        Those who live and work in this eastern Ohio hamlet credit the apparent drop in the number of door-to-door solicitors to a 4-year-old ordinance requiring all canvassers to register their names and affiliations at the village hall.

        It's at the heart of a U.S. Supreme Court case brought by Jehovah's Witnesses and expected to be decided this month.

        At issue is whether solicitors — from Girl Scouts selling cookies to congressmen campaigning for re-election to evangelists recruiting converts — have a constitutional right to anonymity, no matter what they are trying to pitch.

        Officials in communities with similar ordinances are watching the case.

        Although the numbers aren't tracked, Lani Williams, associate counsel with the International Municipal Lawyers Association in Washington, said many communities make for-profit solicitors register. Fewer also require nonprofits to do so.

        Last year, Highland Village, Texas, a 12,100-person community northwest of Dallas, expanded its law to include people passing out literature and nonprofits.

        Police Capt. Chuck Bahr said that over the past few years outsiders pretended to be canvassers and tried to break into homes where no one answered the door.

        “We're not trying to be big brother or anything. We're just trying to protect our folks,” he said.

        In Charlack, Mo., doorstep solicitors selling products for a profit — like the shingle salesmen who came by six months ago after two storms — must pay $10 for a permit.

        Nonprofit groups, including religious denominations, must register but don't have to pay a fee.

        “We wanted to have a better handle on who comes into the city,” said Joy Porter Drennan, clerk of the St. Louis suburb of 1,431 people.

        In Stratton, people collecting for charities and religious groups were frequent visitors, along with door-to-door vendors.

        Jehovah's Witnesses in nearby Wellsville argued that the town's law violates their rights to practice their faith anonymously and to talk with residents without permission.

        Paul Polidoro, associate general counsel for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., which filed the suit for the congregation, said a solicitation ordinance becomes a problem when applied to protected speech.

        “Does a citizen need to obtain the permission of a town to speak to a fellow citizen? We think not,” he said.

        Frank Bruzzese, the village law director and author of the ordinance, says the case is about property rights.

        “I'm not regulating your lips or the words that your lips say, I'm regulating your feet and where they step from the public sidewalk onto my private property,” he said. “In the end, what's the harm of registering if you're legit?”

        That's what several other residents wonder.

        Sandy Racz, a swim coach who has lived in Stratton for 25 years, said she registered this spring before she went to each house passing out fliers for the annual church luncheon.

        “Really, what's the big deal about filling out a form?” asked Ms. Racz, 44, as she gathered abandoned goggles and swim caps after the Stratton Seacats' morning practice at the community center.

        About 15 people have registered, and the town says nobody has been refused a permit or charged with violating the ordinance.

        Tom Skeeles, 32, says the ordinance is one of the reasons there is no crime in Stratton.

        “No one ever comes through here anymore,” he said. “It seems to deter scam artists from preying on all the older people who live here.”

        One of several towns along the Ohio River with populations under 1,000, Stratton is home to 278 people, a third of whom are older than 60. Many residents are retirees from steel mills and power plants situated among the valley's lush green hills.

        Knowing who's in town is especially important because Stratton is on a curvy stretch of highway heavily traveled by outsiders from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said Diane Martin, who works at Riverside Market.

        She lived in town until a few years ago, when she got married and moved seven miles north to Hammondsville.

        “At least with the law, someone in town knows who's knocking at your door even if you don't.”


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