The Hughes Court (1930–41)

First Amendment

What decision reversed the conviction of a phonograph-playing Jehovah’s Witness?

The Hughes Court ruled unanimously (9–0) in Cantwell v. Connecticut that Jesse Cantwell did not commit breach of the peace when he walked door-to-door in a Catholic neighborhood soliciting for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Cantwell, his brother Russell, and his father Newton walked down Cassius Street in New Haven, Connecticut, and asked the residents if they would listen to one of their records. These records attacked official religions, including Catholicism. City officials cited the three men for failing to obtain a permit to solicit door-to-door and for breach of the peace.

The Court unanimously ruled that the city law requiring solicitors to obtain a permit violated the First Amendment. The Court focused on the fact that the secretary of the welfare council would determine the merits of the solicitation and religious causes before making the permit decision. To the Court, this was unacceptable: “But to condition the solicitation of aid for the perpetuation of religious views or systems upon a license, the grant of which rests in the exercise of a determination by state authority as to what is a religious cause, is to lay a forbidden burden upon the exercise of liberty protected by the Constitution.” The court then addressed Jesse Cantwell’s conviction for breach of the peace, finding that his conduct did not merit official sanction.


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