Door-to-door sales: Would ban violate First Amendment?

Proselytizing eternal salvation, petitioning to save doomed species, selling cookies and light bulbs, hawking brushes and vacuum cleaners, signing people up for magazine or cable TV subscriptions, stumping for votes…

Many missions may bring strangers to someone’s front door, knocking, knocking...

Now constitutional questions raised by a cable television company have slowed the selectmen’s push to ban door-to-door selling in Ridgefield.

“Commercial speech is a protected activity under the First Amendment,” David Bogan, an attorney representing Comcast of Connecticut, wrote to the town. “...Thus, a municipal regulation or ordinance targeting such speech must directly advance a legitimate governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to restrict no more speech than necessary.”

Ridgefield’s Board of Selectmen had a bipartisan consensus to try to stop to door-to-door sales in town. The selectmen regarded it as an issue of safety, and also protecting people’s ability to enjoy their homes in peace and quiet.

“We were getting feedback from our residents, saying we don’t want people going door to door,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said.

With the board’s backing, First Selectman Rudy Marconi had asked town attorneys at Cohen and Wolf to draft a ban on door-to-door sales — in the form of revisions to the town’s vending and peddling ordinance.

“No person or entity shall peddle, vend, hawk or sell upon any public streets, or from house to house, anywhere in the town…” said a draft amendment prepared for the selectmen’s Oct. 10 board meeting.

“The purpose of this article is to promote greater public safety and welfare and to inhibit or deter potential consumer fraud.”

With the goal of banning door-to-door sales, the proposed amendment would also eliminate from the existing ordinance language setting up a process for door-to-door sales permits to be granted by the town. The current process proposed for elimination includes requirements such as two passport-sized photos, “reasonable personal information,” and a background check by the Ridgefield Police Department.

The amendment seeks to avoid constitutional problems by exempting people acting “on behalf of any charitable, civic or religious organization.”

Attorney’s visit

In the public comment period at the start of the Oct. 10 meeting, attorney Kate Boucher, a former Ridgefielder now working at the Hartford law firm Locke Lord LLP, came forward to voice Comcast’s concerns.

“Comcast applied for a permit eight months ago,” she said. “...Comcast is a reputable company.”

Boucher read from a Sept. 24 letter by her colleague, attorney David Bogan, saying Comcast had applied for a permit in February, had been “orally denied” in April, but had received no formal response to its application.

“The town made no assertion that Comcast failed to satisfy the requirements as required by the ordinance for grant of the permit,” the letter said. “...the town had safety concerns regarding door to door sales. Yet, the town’s application requires safety and background information…

“Despite repeated requests by Comcast for clarification, the town has continued to delay reconsideration of Comcast’s request,” the letter said.

Attorney Alexander Copp of the town’s law firm, Cohen and Wolf, had written to Boucher and Bogan on Sept. 18, explaining the selectmen’s current situation.

“The board is looking at potential changes to the regulation involving door-to-door sales,” the town’s attorney wrote. “This was brought up at a meeting early this month. The Comcast application was not ruled on or discussed. I cannot predict what the changes will be, but since the regulation may change in the near future, I think it’s unlikely that the board will take an official action on the application at this time.”

Having applied in February, Comcast wasn’t happy with this.

“This delay effectively serves as a denial of the request initiated nearly seven months ago,” Bogan’s Sept. 24 letter says. “...The ordinance fails to provide any avenue for appeal. Comcast hereby requests that the town issue a written ruling on Comcast’s February 26th application so that it can pursue judicial review in the event of a denial.”

Why door-knocking?

Selectwoman Barbara Manners asked attorney Boucher why Comcast was pursuing door-to-door sales when there are so many other avenues for reaching people these days.

“The company made a business decision to pursue this avenue of sales,” Boucher replied.

“Is Comcast doing door-to-door sales in any other Fairfield County towns?” asked Selecman Steve Zemo.

“The company is making business decisions on a town-by-town basis,” Boucher replied.

She added that she understood Comcast had applied for a door-to-door permit in at least one other town — Orange.

“Are you alleging a First Amendment right?” asked John Katz, from the audience of the selectmen’s meeting.

“Yes,” said Boucher.

Marconi told Boucher the selectmen were firm on the matter.

“The board is in agreement, collectively,” he said. “We don’t want to issue permits for door-to- door sales.”

It wasn’t until near the end of the evening’s agenda that the proposed amendment to the vending and peddling ordinance came up.

In view of Boucher’s earlier statements, the selectmen decided to consult their lawyers before proceeding further.

“Do we want to continue to debate about it, recognizing there could be litigation?” Marconi asked the board.

“Let’s get an opinion from counsel,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

The close of the letter from Comcast’s attorneys had sought to frame the discussion in positive terms.

“Comcast is a reputable company which has had the privilege of serving the residents of Ridgefield for many years, and has a long history reflecting its commitment to serving as a good corporate citizen in the towns which it serves,” the letter said. “Comcast’s current initiative is intended to continue that relationship.”