CRS Annotated Constitution

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Door–to–Door Solicitation.—In another Jehovah’s Witness case, the Court struck down an ordinance forbidding solicitors or distributors of literature from knocking on residential doors in a community, the aims of the ordinance being to protect privacy, to protect the sleep of many who worked nightshifts, and to protect against burglars posing as canvassers. The five–to–four majority concluded that on balance “[t]he dangers of distribution can so easily be controlled by traditional legal methods, leaving to each householder the full right to decide whether he will receive strangers as visitors, that stringent prohibition can serve no purpose but that forbidden by the Constitution, the naked restriction of the dissemination of ideas.”176

More recently, while striking down an ordinance because of vagueness, the Court observed that it “has consistently recognized a municipality’s power to protect its citizens from crime and undue annoyance by regulating soliciting and canvassing. A narrowly drawn ordinance, that does not vest in municipal officers the undefined power to determine what messages residents will hear, may serve these important interests without running afoul of the First Amendment.”177 The Court indicated that its precedents supported measures that would require some form of notice to officials and the obtaining of identification in order that persons could canvas house–to–house for charitable or political purposes.

However, an ordinance which limited solicitation of contributions door–to–door by charitable organizations to those which use at least 75% of their receipts directly for charitable purposes, defined so as to exclude the expenses of solicitation, salaries, overhead, and other administrative expenses, was invalidated as overbroad.178 A[p.1183]privacy rationale was rejected, inasmuch as just as much intrusion was likely by permitted solicitors as by unpermitted ones. A rationale of prevention of fraud was unavailing, inasmuch as it could not be said that all associations that spent more than 25% of their receipts on overhead were actually engaged in a profit making enterprise, and, in any event, more narrowly drawn regulations, such as disclosure requirements, could serve this governmental interest.

Shaumberg was extended in Secretary of State of Maryland v. Joseph H. Munson Co.,179 and Riley v. National Fed’n of the Blind.180 In Munson the Court invalidated a Maryland statute limiting professional fundraisers to 25% of the amount collected plus certain costs, and allowing waiver of this limitation if it would effectively prevent the charity from raising contributions. And in Riley the Court invalidated a North Carolina fee structure containing even more flexibility.181 The Court sees “no nexus between the percentage of funds retained by the fundraiser and the likelihood that the solicitation is fraudulent,” and is similarly hostile to any scheme that shifts the burden to the fundraiser to show that a fee structure is reasonable.182 Moreover, a requirement that fundraisers disclose to potential donors the percentage of donated funds previously used for charity was also invalidated in Riley, the Court indicating that the “more benign and narrowly tailored” alternative of disclosure to the state (accompanied by state publishing of disclosed percentages) could make the information publicly available without so threatening the effectiveness of solicitation.183

The Problem of “Symbolic Speech.”—Very little expression is “mere” speech. If it is oral, it may be noisy enough to be disturbing,184 and, if it is written, it may be litter;185 in either case, it may amount to conduct that is prohibitable in specific cir[p.1184]cumstances.186 Moving beyond these simple examples, one may see as well that conduct may have a communicative content, intended to express a point of view. Expressive conduct may consist in flying a particular flag as a symbol187 or in refusing to salute a flag as a symbol.188 Sit–ins and stand–ins may effectively express a protest about certain things.189

Justice Jackson wrote: “There is no doubt that, in connection with the pledge, the flag salute is a form of utterance. Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas. The use of an emblem or flag to symbolize some system, idea, institution, or personality is a short cut from mind to mind.”190 When conduct or action has a communicative content to it, governmental regulation or prohibition implicates the First Amendment, but this does not mean that such conduct or action is necessarily immune from governmental process. Thus, while the Court has had few opportunities to formulate First Amendment standards in this area, in upholding a congressional prohibition on draft–card burnings, it has stated the generally applicable rule. “[A] government regulation is sufficiently justified if it is within the constitutional power of Government; if it furthers an important or substantial governmental interest; if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedom is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that government interest.”191 The Court has suggested that this standard is virtually identical to that applied to time, place, or manner restrictions on expression.192

Although almost unanimous in formulating and applying the test in O’Brien, the Court splintered when it had to deal with one[p.1185]of the more popular forms of “symbolic” conduct of the late 1960s and early 1970s—flag burning and other forms of flag desecration. The Court remains closely divided to this day. No unifying theory capable of application to a wide range of possible flag abuse actions emerged from the early cases. Thus, in Street v. New York,193 the defendant had been convicted under a statute punishing desecration “by words or act” upon evidence that when he burned the flag he had uttered contemptuous words. The conviction was set aside because it might have been premised on his words alone or on his words and the act together, and no valid governmental interest supported penalizing verbal contempt for the flag.194

A few years later the Court reversed two other flag desecration convictions, one on due process/vagueness grounds, the other under the First Amendment. were decided by the Court in a manner that indicated an effort to begin to resolve the standards of First Amendment protection of “symbolic conduct.” In Smith v. Goguen,195 a statute punishing anyone who “publicly . . . treats contemptuously the flag of the United States . . . ,” was held unconstitutionally vague, and a conviction for wearing trousers with a small United States flag sewn to the seat was overturned. The language subjected the defendant to criminal liability under a standard “so indefinite that police, court, and jury were free to react to nothing more than their own preferences for treatment of the flag.”196

The First Amendment was the basis for reversal in Spence v. Washington,197 in which a conviction under a statute punishing the display of a United States flag to which something is attached or superimposed was set aside; Spence had hung his flag from his apartment window upside down with a peace symbol taped to the front and back. The act, the Court thought, was a form of communication, and because of the nature of the act, the factual context and environment in which it was undertaken, the Court held it to be protected. The context included the fact that the flag was pri[p.1186]vately owned, that it was displayed on private property, and that there was no danger of breach of the peace. The nature of the act was that it was intended to express an idea and it did so without damaging the flag. The Court assumed that the State had a valid interest in preserving the flag as a national symbol, but whether that interest extended beyond protecting the physical integrity of the flag was left unclear.198

The underlying assumption that flag burning could be prohibited as a means of protecting the flag’s symbolic value was later rejected. Twice, in 1989 and again in 1990, the Court held that prosecutions for flag burning at a public demonstration violated the First Amendment. First, in Texas v. Johnson199 the Court rejected a state desecration statute designed to protect the flag’s symbolic value, and then in United States v. Eichman200 rejected a more limited federal statute purporting to protect only the flag’s physical integrity. Both cases were decided by 5–to–4 votes, with Justice Brennan writing the Court’s opinions.201 The Texas statute invalidated in Johnson defined the prohibited act of “desecration” as any physical mistreatment of the flag that the actor knew would seriously offend other persons. This emphasis on causing offense to others meant that the law was not “unrelated to the suppression of free expression” and that consequently the deferential standard of United States v. O’Brien was inapplicable. Applying strict scrutiny, the Court ruled that the State’s prosecution of someone who burned a flag at a political protest was not justified under the State’s asserted interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity. The Court’s opinion left little doubt that the existing Federal statute, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 700 , and the flag desecration laws of 47 other states would suffer a similar fate in a similar case. Doubt remained, however, as to whether the Court[p.1187]would uphold a “content–neutral” statute protecting the physical integrity of the flag.

Immediately following Johnson, Congress enacted a new flag protection statute providing punishment for anyone who “knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States.”202 The law was designed to be content–neutral, and to protect the “physical integrity” of the flag.203 Nonetheless, in upholding convictions of flag burners, the Court found that the law suffered from “the same fundamental flaw” as the Texas law in Johnson. The government’s underlying interest, characterized by the Court as resting upon “a perceived need to preserve the flag’s status as a symbol of our Nation and certain national ideals,”204 still related to the suppression of free expression. Support for this interpretation was found in the fact that most of the prohibited acts are usually associated with disrespectful treatment of the flag; this suggested to the Court “a focus on those acts likely to damage the flag’s symbolic value.”205 As in Johnson, such a law could not withstand “most exacting scrutiny” analysis.

The Court’s ruling in Eichman rekindled congressional efforts, postponed with enactment of the Flag Protection Act, to amend the Constitution to authorize flag desecration legislation at the federal and state levels. In both the House and the Senate these measures failed to receive the necessary two–thirds vote.206


176 Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U.S. 141, 147 (1943) .
177 Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell, 425 U.S. 610, 616–17 (1976) . Justices Brennan and Marshall did not agree with the part of the opinion approving the regulatory power. Id. at 623.
178 Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 444 U.S. 620 (1980) . See also Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228 (1982) (state law distinguishing between religious organizations and their solicitation of funds on basis of whether organizations received more than half of their total contributions from members or from public solicitation violates establishment clause). Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414 (1988) (criminal penalty on use of paid circulators to obtain signatures for ballot initiative suppresses political speech in violation of First and Fourteenth Amendments).
179 467 U.S. 947 (1984) .
180 487 U.S. 781 (1988) .
181 A fee of up to 20% of collected receipts was deemed reasonable, a fee between 20 and 35% was permissible if the solicitation involved advocacy or the dissemination of information, and a fee in excess of 35% was presumptively unreasonable, but could be upheld upon one of two showings: that advocacy or dissemination of information was involved, or that otherwise the charity’s ability to collect money or communicate would be significantly diminished.
182 487U.S. at 793 487U.S. at 793.
183 Id. at 800. North Carolina’s requirement for licensing of professional fundraisers was also invalidated in Riley, id. at 801–02.
184 E.g., Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558 (1948) ; Kovacs v. Cooper, 336 U.S. 77 (1949) .
185 E.g., Schneider v. Town of Irvington, 308 U.S. 147 (1939) .
186 Cf. Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971) .
187 Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931) .
188 West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) .
189 In Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966) , the Court held protected a peaceful, silent stand–in in a segregated public library. Speaking of speech and assembly, Justice Fortas said for the Court: “As this Court has repeatedly stated, these rights are not confined to verbal expression. They embrace appropriate types of action which certainly include the right in a peaceable and orderly manner to protest by silent and reproachful presence, in a place where the protestant has every right to be, the unconstitutional segregation of public facilities.” Id. at 141–42. See also Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157, 185, 201 (1961) (Justice Harlan concurring). On a different footing is expressive conduct in a place where such conduct is prohibited for reasons other than suppressing speech. See Clark v. Community for Creative Non–Violence, 468 U.S. 288 (1984) (upholding Park Service restriction on overnight sleeping as applied to demonstrators wishing to call attention to the plight of the homeless).
190 West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 632 (1943) .
191 United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968) .
192 Clark v. Community for Creative Non–Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 298 & n.8 (1984).
193 394 U.S. 576 (1969) .
194 Id. at 591–93. Four dissenters concluded that the First Amendment did not preclude a flat proscription of flag burning or flag desecration for expressive purposes. Id. at 594 (Chief Justice Warren), 609 (Justice Black), 610 (Justice White), and 615 (Justice Fortas). In Radich v. New York, 401 U.S. 531 (1971) , aff’g 26 N.Y. 2d 114, 257 N.E. 2d 30 (1970), an equally divided Court, Justice Douglas not participating, sustained a flag desecration conviction of one who displayed sculptures in a gallery, using the flag in some apparently sexually bizarre ways to register a social protest. Defendant subsequently obtained his release on habeas corpus, United States ex rel. Radich v. Criminal Court, 459 F.2d 745 (2d Cir. 1972), cert. denied 409 U.S. 115 (1973) .
195 415 U.S. 566 (1974) .
196 Id. at 578.
197 418 U.S. 405 (1974) .
198 Id. at 408–11, 412–13. Subsequently, the Court vacated, over the dissents of Chief Justice Burger and Justices White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, two convictions for burning flags and sent them back for reconsideration in the light of Goguen and Spence. Sutherland v. Illinois, 418 U.S. 907 (1974) ; Farrell v. Iowa, 418 U.S. 907 (1974) . The Court did, however, dismiss, “for want of a substantial federal question,” an appeal from a flag desecration conviction of one who, with no apparent intent to communicate but in the course of “horseplay,” blew his nose on a flag, simulated masturbation on it, and finally burned it. Van Slyke v. Texas, 418 U.S. 907 (1974) .
199 491 U.S. 397 (1989) .
200 496 U.S. 310 (1990) .
201 In each case Justice Brennan’s opinion for the Court was joined by Justices Marshall, Blackmun, Scalia, and Kennedy, and in each case Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices White, Stevens, and O’Connor dissented. In Johnson the Chief Justice’s dissent was joined by Justices White and O’Connor, and Justice Stevens dissented separately. In Eichman Justice Stevens wrote the only dissenting opinion, to which the other dissenters subscribed.
202 The Flag Protection Act of 1989, Pub. L. 101–131.
203 See H.R. Rep. No. 231, 101st Cong., 1st Sess. 8 (1989) (“The purpose of the bill is to protect the physical integrity of American flags in all circumstances, regardless of the motive or political message of any flag burner”).
204 United States v. Eichman, 496U.S. at 316 496U.S. at 316.
205 Id. at 317.
206 The House defeated H.J. Res. 350 by vote of 254 in favor to 177 against (136 Cong. Rec. H4086 (daily ed. June 21, 1990); the Senate defeated S.J. Res. 332 by vote of 58 in favor to 42 against (136 Cong. Rec. S8737 (daily ed. June 26, 1990).
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