Jones v. City of Opelika

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In Jones v. City of Opelika the Supreme Court visited the First Amendment question of licensing requirements municipalities can establish relative to public canvassing. The case dealt with three separate cases from three different states: Jones v. City of Opelika, Alabama, Bowden et al. v. City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Jobin v. State of Arizona.

In each case, local municipalities established licensing regulations for those engaged in canvassing their communities. The respondents, who were Jehovah's Witnesses were convicted of engaging in the distribution of religious literature without payment of a licensing tax. The Supreme Court upheld the convictions and said that the governments have the right to charge reasonable fees and that these laws could not be challenged even if local authorities might arbitrarily revoke the license.

Justice Reed delivered the majority opinion of the court writing, "When proponents of religious or social theories use the ordinary commercial methods of sales of articles to raise propaganda funds, it is a natural and proper exercise of the power of the state to charge reasonable fees for the privilege of canvassing. Careful as we may and should be to protect the freedoms safeguarded by the Bill of Rights, it is difficult to see in such enactments a shadow of prohibition of the exercise of religion or of abridgment of the freedom of speech or the press. It is prohibition and unjustifiable abridgment which is interdicted, not taxation."

Justice Murphy writing a dissenting opinion stated, "It is not disputed that petitioners, Jehovah's Witnesses, were ordained ministers preaching the gospel, as they understood it, through the streets and from house to house, orally and by playing religious records with the consent of the householder, and by distributing books and pamphlets setting forth the tenets of their faith. It does not appear that their motives were commercial, but only that they were evangelizing their faith as they saw it. The opinion of the Court holds that the amount of the tax is not before us and that a 'nondiscriminatory license fee, presumably appropriate in amount, may be imposed upon these activities'. Both of these holdings must be rejected. Where regulation or infringement of the liberty of discussion and the dissemination of information and opinion are involved, there are special reasons for testing the challenged statute on its face."

The case was argued on February 5 and April 30, 1942. The decision announced on June 8, 1942.

The decision was reversed less than twelve months later in the case Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when the Court declared any ordinance requiring a license tax be a precondition to the exercise of one's freedom of religion by means of distributing religious literature as unconstitutional.