More Leeway For Door-To-Door Canvassers

The Record ( — Sunday, March 1, 2009


A few towns in North Jersey that impose tough rules governing door-to-door canvassing and solicitation are adjusting restrictions to balance the privacy rights of residents with the First Amendment rights of others.

Lyndhurst, Wayne, Clifton, Midland Park and Paramus are among a handful of towns statewide that have parts of their canvassing ordinances ruled unconstitutional.

Like laws regulating peddlers and salesmen who go door-to-door, some towns required police to conduct background checks, fingerprinting, licensing and curfews on members of non-profit and charity groups before they could take to the streets.

Once entering a town, those groups often had to check in with Town Hall and be prepared to display licenses to police and residents on demand.

"We had to talk and negotiate with the [municipal] clerks just to get in the town," said Amy Goldsmith, state director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which launched successful lawsuits against those towns in U.S. District Court in Newark. "Sometimes we had to go to the police ... It really inhibited our ability to communicate with people in a timely manner."

Communities have had to revamp some of their restrictions to comply, with some now compiling special do-not-knock lists for groups to prevent them from intruding on residents.

Other towns, including Lyndhurst, have printed do-not-knock stickers for its residents to display to alert canvassers of local privacy rights. Many, including Paramus, have relaxed their curfew restrictions, allowing political and non-profit groups to canvass well past dusk.

"We ask for a courtesy heads-up..." Paramus Administrator Anthony Iacono said. "There's no time frame. There's nothing in the code that has a requirement."

Most of those changes were prompted by several landmark court cases, including New Jersey Federation v. Wayne Township in 2004, that ruled a charitable and non-profit group going door-to-door, handing out pamphlets and asking for donations was a form of free speech.

That same year, the New Jersey League of Municipalities sent out letters to mayors of towns, informing them of the ruling and explaining that many ordinances went too far.

"It appears that the restrictions or licensing is legal only for commercial solicitors," said Deborah Kole, the league's attorney. "The case law says the First Amendment protects these other groups."

In her letter, Kole also highlighted the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton, which redefined the rights of religious groups that go door to door.

But some municipalities have questioned the fairness of the decision, with incidents of dishonest peddlers and con artists who prey on unsuspecting residents on the rise.

"People don't want strangers ringing their door bells at all hours of the night," said Wayne Mayor Christopher Vergano, a councilman-at large at the time the town lost its decision. "Unfortunately, the courts didn't see it that way."

Wayne has grudgingly given in, supplying canvassers a do-not-knock list of residents but restricting their hours of operation to no later than an hour after dusk.

Lyndhurst, which until last year required all non-profit canvassers to provide their date of birth for a $15 license, has also eased restrictions.

"Recent case law has supported their position and subject to this litigation, we had to amend the ordinance, then the case was settled," said Gary Cucchiara, the town attorney."

For groups like the Environmental Commission, a state chapter of Clean Water Action, time is critical when working on projects. One current campaign urges residents to tell state legislators not to support a pending bill regulating toxic waste site cleanups until more teeth is added to the measure.

Other groups, including New Jersey Citizen Action, said the message they relay is critical.

"These onerous qualifications set up by towns makes it impossible [for us to do our job,]" said Phyllis Salone-Kaye, executive director of the citizen's watchdog group. "Sometimes we have to warn residents about issues ranging from health care to economics. Sometimes an area is at risk for having a high number of foreclosures. ... We can't do that unless we get there in a timely manner."

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