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Cantwell v. Connecticut

310 U.S. 296 (1940)

Facts of the Case:

Cantwell and his two sons were found guilty of violating the common law offense of inciting a breach of peace. They went door-to-door with books and pamphlets in a predominately Roman Catholic street. They played a record entitled "Enemies" which attacked Catholicism. They claimed that the statute upon which their conviction was based violated their right to free speech by requiring a permit to solicit donations from people outside of their organization.


The Court ruled that the statute requiring a license to solicit for religious purposes was a prior restraint that vested the state with excessive power in determining which groups must obtain a license. Also, the Cantwells did not pose a threat to public order by spreading their message.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Roberts)

The statute denies these individuals their due process rights. The state is not permitted to place this prior restraint on those who seek to solicit contributions. The activity is not restricted because of its potential for harm, as is evidenced by the fact that the act could be performed after obtaining a permit. The statute gives the secretary of public welfare the power to determine which groups are religious and therefore, who must obtain a permit before soliciting contributions. "Such a censorship of religion as the means of determining its right to survive is a denial of liberty protected by the First Amendment and included in the liberty which is within the protection of the Fourteenth." Even if an error by the secretary can be corrected by the courts, the process still serves as an unconstitutional prior restraint. "[T]o condition the solicitation of aid for the perpetuation of religious views or systems upon a license, the grant of which rests in the exercise of a determination by state authority as to what is a religious cause, is to lay a forbidden burden upon the exercise of liberty protected by the Constitution." The Cantwells should not be convicted of posing a threat to public order because they were merely sharing their ideas. When several Catholics became upset at the message one of the sons immediately left the scene in order to avoid a physical confrontation.


This decision made it impermissible for states to place special requirements on people engaged in spreading a religious message. Also, sharing one's message in an unfriendly environment does not necessarily pose a threat to public order.

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