Newton Cantwell and his two sons, Jesse and Russell, were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They went door to door in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood to sell literature and solicit contributions. Jesse also asked and received permission from two men on the street to play a phonograph record, which attacked Catholicism. The men became upset and asked Jesse to leave, and he did. The Cantwells were arrested and convicted of breach of the peace and violation of a state statute regulating religious solicitation. The statute required anybody who wished to engage in religious solicitation to first apply to the state for a certificate, which would be issued only upon a determination by the state the the cause was a religious one.
The State Supreme Court reversed Newton and Russell Cantwell’s convictions for breach of the peace and affirmed the remaining convictions.
Whether the First Amendment rights to religious liberty apply to the states through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment?
Whether the religious solicitation statute infringed on the Cantwells’ constitutional rights to free speech and/or free exercise of religion?
Whether Jesse Cantwell’s conviction of breach of the peace violated his constitutional rights to free speech and/or free exercise of religion?
(J. Roberts) The federal First Amendment protections for religious liberty are incorporated into the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process at the state level.
The solicitation statute as applied to the Cantwells was an unconstitutional prior restraint on their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.
Jesse Cantwell’s conviction of breach of the peace violated his religious liberty and free speech rights under the Constitution.
A state cannot condition the solicitation of aid for a religion on the grant of a license by a state authority who makes a prior determination of whether the cause is truly religious.
The state has the power to prohibit or punish speech that poses an immediate threat to public safety and order, but the state cannot suppress free communication of religious or other views under the guise of conserving desirable conditions.
States may promote the public interest by placing time, place, and manner restrictions on solicitation activities in a general and nondiscriminatory manner. The statute at issue, however, required an application to a state official empowered to use his discretion to determine whether the cause was a religious one, and the decision to withhold approval made any solicitation a crime. The statute created an unconstitutional system of prior restraint in which the state could censor religious viewpoints. The state was still free to protect against fraudulent activities through more general regulations and penal laws designed to punish such conduct.
The breach of the peace law was so general and indefinite that it encompassed a wide variety of conduct and gave the state too much discretion in its application. There was no evidence that Jesse Cantwell’s interaction with the two men on the street was violent, aggressive, or threatening. They consented to Cantwell playing the record. His communication angered the men but it raised no clear and present danger to public peace and order sufficient to uphold a conviction of breach of the peace.