Municipalities frequently regulate door-to-door solicitations and canvassing within their boundaries pursuant to the police power of the municipality to promote public safety and welfare. Municipalities can lawfully regulate the time, place and manner of solicitations for the public safety of their residents and to protect the peaceful enjoyment of homes within the municipality. Municipal regulations that restrict solicitations to “reasonable hours,” or curfews, have been upheld where the solicitation curfews were found to reasonably relate to the promotion of public health and safety. Solicitation curfews after 8:00 p.m. and before 7:00 a.m., as well as on recognized holidays, have uniformly been upheld as legitimate exercises of municipal police powers. There is no absolute right under the federal constitution to enter onto the private premises of another person and knock on a door for any purpose, and reasonable regulation to serve local interests is permitted.
Door-to-door solicitations are a form of commercial speech which are protected against unreasonable governmental regulation under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Thus, blanket bans on door-to-door solicitations have uniformly been held to be unconstitutional. A municipality may serve its legitimate interests in protecting the public health and safety of its residents, but it must do so by narrowly drawn regulations tailored to serve those interests without unnecessarily interfering with First Amendment freedoms. Restrictions on free speech rights will not be upheld when there are less restrictive alternatives available to accomplish the same public goals. For example, some courts have found that a municipal interest in preventing crime can be served by enforcing application and registration requirements and enforcing laws against trespass, fraud, and burglary instead of imposing a total ban against solicitation.
During the recent COVID-19 Emergency Declaration of the Governor, many municipalities in Pennsylvania enacted moratoriums on the issuance of solicitation licenses. With the expiration of the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, municipal moratoriums on the issuance of solicitation licenses have been lifted. As pandemic-related restrictions have eased, broad bans on solicitation activities have been successfully challenged.
The majority of courts view licensing ordinances that do not permit some form of evening activity as constitutionally overbroad. Accordingly, solicitation curfews prohibiting solicitations during late evening or very early morning hours have been found to be constitutional. Most solicitation curfews are justified on the basis of a promotion of public safety and the protection of the privacy of residence. However, broad solicitation bans during early evening hours, even if in the interest of crime prevention, have been found to be not narrowly tailored to achieve permissible objectives where the municipality has failed to show that the curfew or ban left open adequate and ample alternative channels of communication.
The recent explosion of internet-based sales and solicitations has limited the frequency of door-to-door solicitations. However, some companies have recently employed door-to-door solicitations more frequently for the sale of home services such as home remodeling, painting, landscaping, and pest control services. The sales tactics of these individuals range from passive to very aggressive. As more residents are working from home amidst the pandemic, municipalities are facing increased questions on how the municipality is poised to handle door-to-door salespersons and other peddlers. Should the municipality determine a restriction on door-to-door solicitations is necessary, it must be substantially related to legitimate government objectives and must be narrowly drawn to serve those interests without unnecessarily interfering with First Amendment freedoms.
The United States Supreme Court has consistently recognized the First Amendment right of religious organizations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to ring doorbells and knock on doors to effect their door to door ministry. In Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton, the Supreme Court held that a municipal ordinance that required individuals to obtain a permit prior to engaging in door-to-door advocacy and to display the permit upon demand violated the First Amendment exercise of free speech and the religious free exercise rights of the canvassers.
Of course, these constitutional limitations relate to governmental action and not action by private individuals on their property. The Supreme Court has recognized the right of homeowners to state that they do not want any solicitations, whether religious, political, commercial or otherwise. Private individuals have the right to prohibit solicitation activities by the posting of signage such as “no solicitations” or “solicitation prohibited.” Those restrictions can be enforced under nuisance and trespassing statutes or solicitation ordinances. Content-neutral regulations that are of general applicability and are tailored to further the municipality’s interest in preventing fraud, invasion of the privacy of residents and the prevention of crime will survive constitutional attack.