In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided June 27, 1988

Justice O’Connor, For the Court


Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474 (1988), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the ordinance by the town of Brookfield, Wisconsin, preventing protest outside of a residential home. In a 6–3 decision, the Court ruled that the First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and speech was not facially violated. The majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Conner, concluding that the ordinance was constitutionally valid because it was narrowly tailored to meet a "substantial and justifiable" interest in the state; left open "ample alternative channels of communication"; and was content-neutral.

Topic: First Amendment*Court vote: 6–3
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Joining O'Connor opinion: Justice BLACKMUN Justice BLACKMUN Justice KENNEDY Justice KENNEDY Chief Justice REHNQUIST Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SCALIA Justice SCALIA
Holding: The Supreme Court upheld the state ordinance because it is 'content neutral,' 'leaves open ample alternative channels of communication,' and serves a 'significant government interest.'.
Citation: 487 U.S. 474 Docket: 87–168Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Brookfield, Wisconsin, has adopted an ordinance that completely bans picketing "before or about" any residence. This case presents a facial First Amendment challenge to that ordinance.


Brookfield, Wisconsin, is a residential suburb of Milwaukee with a population of approximately 4,300. The appellees, Sandra C. Schultz and Robert C. Braun, are individuals strongly opposed to abortion, and wish to express their views on the subject by picketing on a public street outside the Brookfield residence of a doctor who apparently performs abortions at two clinics in neighboring towns. Appellees and others engaged in precisely that activity, assembling outside the doctor's home on at least six occasions between April 20, 1985, and May 20, 1985, for periods ranging from one to one and a half hours. The size of the group varied from 11 to more than 40. The picketing was generally orderly and peaceful; the town never had occasion to invoke any of its various ordinances prohibiting obstruction of the streets, loud and unnecessary noises, or disorderly conduct. Nonetheless, the picketing generated substantial controversy and numerous complaints.

The Town Board therefore resolved to enact an ordinance to restrict the picketing. On May 7, 1985, the town passed an ordinance that prohibited all picketing in residential neighborhoods except for labor picketing. But after reviewing this Court's decision in Carey v. Brown, 447 U. S. 455 (1980), which invalidated a similar ordinance as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, the town attorney instructed the police not to enforce the new ordinance and advised the town Board that the ordinance's labor picketing exception likely rendered it unconstitutional. This ordinance was repealed on May 15, 1985, and replaced with the following flat ban on all residential picketing:

It is unlawful for any person to engage in picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual in the Town of Brookfield.

App. to Juris. Statement A-28.

The ordinance itself recites the primary purpose of this ban: "the protection and preservation of the home" through assurance "that members of the community enjoy in their homes and dwellings a feeling of wellbeing, tranquility, and privacy." Id. at A-26. The Town Board believed that a ban was necessary because it determined that

the practice of picketing before or about residences and dwellings causes emotional disturbance and distress to the occupants... [and] has as its object the harassing of such occupants.

Id. at A-26 A-27. The ordinance also evinces a concern for public safety, noting that picketing obstructs and interferes with "the free use of public sidewalks and public ways of travel." Id. at A-27.

On May 18, 1985, appellees were informed by the town attorney that enforcement of the new, revised ordinance would begin on May 21, 1985. Faced with this threat of arrest and prosecution, appellees ceased picketing in Brookfield and filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. The complaint was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and sought declaratory as well as preliminary and permanent injunctive relief on the grounds that the ordinance violated the First Amendment. Appellees named appellants -the three members of the Town Board, the Chief of Police, the town attorney, and the town itself -as defendants.

The District Court granted appellees' motion for a preliminary injunction. The court concluded that the ordinance was not narrowly tailored enough to restrict protected speech in a public forum. 619 F.Supp. 792, 797 (1985). The District Court's order specified that unless the appellants requested a trial on the merits within 60 days or appealed, the preliminary injunction would become permanent. Appellants requested a trial and also appealed the District Court's entry of a preliminary injunction.

A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. 807 F.2d 1339 (1986). The Court of Appeals subsequently vacated this decision, however, and ordered a rehearing en banc. 818 F.2d 1284 (1987). After rehearing, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court by an equally divided vote. 822 F.2d 642 (1987). Contending that the Court of Appeals had rendered a final judgment holding the ordinance "to be invalid as repugnant to the Constitution," 28 U.S.C. § 1254(2), appellants attempted to invoke our mandatory appellate jurisdiction. App. to Juris. Statement A-25 (citing § 1254(2)). We postponed further consideration of our appellate jurisdiction until the hearing on the merits. 484 U.S. 1003 (1988).

Appellees argue that there is no jurisdiction under § 1254(2) due to the lack of finality. They point out that the District Court entered only a preliminary injunction, and that appellants requested a trial on the merits, which has yet to be conducted. These considerations certainly suggest a lack of finality. Yet despite the formally tentative nature of its order, the District Court appeared ready to enter a final judgment, since it indicated that, unless a trial was requested, a permanent injunction would issue. In addition, while appellants initially requested a trial, they no longer adhere to this position, and now say that they would have no additional arguments to offer at such a trial. Tr. of Oral Arg. 7. In the context of this case, however, there is no need to decide whether jurisdiction is proper under § 1254(2). Because the question presented is of substantial importance, and because further proceedings below would not likely aid our consideration of it, we choose to avoid the finality issue simply by granting certiorari. Accordingly, we dismiss the appeal and, treating the jurisdictional statement as a petition for certiorari, now grant the petition. See 28 U.S.C. § 2103. Cf. Mississippi Power & Light Co. v. Mississippi, ante at 487 U. S. 369, n. 10 (1988). For convenience, however, we shall continue to refer to the parties as appellants and appellees, as we have in previous cases. See ibid.; Peralta v. Heights Medical Center, Inc., 485 U. S. 80, 485 U. S. 84, n. 4 (1988).


The antipicketing ordinance operates at the core of the First Amendment by prohibiting appellees from engaging in picketing on an issue of public concern. Because of the importance of "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open" debate on public issues, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, 376 U. S. 270 (1964), we have traditionally subjected restrictions on public issue picketing to careful scrutiny. See, e.g., Boos v. Barry, 485 U. S. 312, 485 U. S. 318 (1988); United States v. Grace, 461 U. S. 171 (1983); Carey v. Brown, 447 U. S. 455 (1980). Of course, "[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times." Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., 473 U. S. 788, 473 U. S. 799 (1985).

To ascertain what limits, if any, may be placed on protected speech, we have often focused on the "place" of that speech, considering the nature of the forum the speaker seeks to employ. Our cases have recognized that the standards by which limitations on speech must be evaluated "differ depending on the character of the property at issue." Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn., 460 U. S. 37, 460 U. S. 44 (1983). Specifically, we have identified three types of fora: "the traditional public forum, the public forum created by government designation, and the nonpublic forum." Cornelius, supra, at 473 U. S. 802.

The relevant forum here may be easily identified: appellees wish to picket on the public streets of Brookfield. Ordinarily, a determination of the nature of the forum would follow automatically from this identification; we have repeatedly referred to public streets as the archetype of a traditional public forum. See, e.g., Boos v. Barry, supra, at 485 U. S. 318 ; Cornelius, supra, at 473 U. S. 802 ; Perry, supra, at 460 U. S. 45. "[T]ime out of mind," public streets and sidewalks have been used for public assembly and debate, the hallmarks of a traditional public forum. See ibid.; Hague v. CIO, 307 U. S. 496, 307 U. S. 515 (1939) (Roberts, J.). Appellants, however, urge us to disregard these "cliches." Tr. of Oral Arg. 16. They argue that the streets of Brookfield should be considered a nonpublic forum. Pointing to the physical narrowness of Brookfield's streets as well as to their residential character, appellants contend that such streets have not by tradition or designation been held open for public communication. See Brief for Appellants 23 (citing Perry, supra, at 460 U. S. 46 ).

We reject this suggestion. Our prior holdings make clear that a public street does not lose its status as a traditional public forum simply because it runs through a residential neighborhood. In Carey v. Brown -which considered a statute similar to the one at issue here, ultimately striking it down as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause because it included an exception for labor picketing -we expressly recognized that "public streets and sidewalks in residential neighborhoods," were "public for[a]." 447 U.S. at 337 U. S. 460 -461. This rather ready identification virtually forecloses appellants' argument. See also Perry, supra, at 487 U. S. 54 -55 (noting that the "key" to Carey "was the presence of a public forum").

In short, our decisions identifying public streets and sidewalks as traditional public fora are not accidental invocations of a "cliche," but recognition that "[w]herever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public." Hague v. CIO, supra, at 307 U. S. 515 (Roberts, J.). No particularized inquiry into the precise nature of a specific street is necessary; all public streets are held in the public trust, and are properly considered traditional public fora. Accordingly, the streets of Brookfield are traditional public fora. The residential character of those streets may well inform the application of the relevant test, but it does not lead to a different test; the antipicketing ordinance must be judged against the stringent standards we have established for restrictions on speech in traditional public fora:

In these quintessential public for[a], the government may not prohibit all communicative activity. For the State to enforce a content-based exclusion, it must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest, and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.... The State may also enforce regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.

Perry, supra, at 460 U. S. 45 (citations omitted).

As Perry makes clear, the appropriate level of scrutiny is initially tied to whether the statute distinguishes between prohibited and permitted speech on the basis of content. Appellees argue that, despite its facial content-neutrality, the Brookfield ordinance must be read as containing an implied exception for labor picketing. See Brief for Appellees 20-26. The basis for appellees' argument is their belief that an express protection of peaceful labor picketing in state law, see Wis.Stat. § 103.53(1) (1985-1986), must take precedence over Brookfield's contrary efforts. The District Court, however, rejected this suggested interpretation of state law, 619 F.Supp. at 796, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, albeit ultimately by an equally divided court. 822 F.2d 642 (1987). See also 807 F.2d 1339, 1347 (1986) (original panel opinion declining to reconsider District Court's construction of state law). Following our normal practice,

we defer to the construction of a state statute given it by the lower federal courts... to reflect our belief that district courts and courts of appeals are better schooled in and more able to interpret the laws of their respective States.

Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc., 472 U. S. 491, 472 U. S. 499 -500 (1985). See Virginia v. American Booksellers Assn., 484 U. S. 383, 484 U. S. 395 (1988) ("This Court rarely reviews a construction of state law agreed upon by the two lower federal courts"). Thus, we accept the lower courts' conclusion that the Brookfield ordinance is content-neutral. Accordingly, we turn to consider whether the ordinance is "narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest," and whether it "leave[s] open ample alternative channels of communication." Perry, 460 U.S. at 460 U. S. 45.

Because the last question is so easily answered, we address it first. Of course, before we are able to assess the available alternatives, we must consider more carefully the reach of the ordinance. The precise scope of the ban is not further described within the text of the ordinance, but, in our view, the ordinance is readily subject to a narrowing construction that avoids constitutional difficulties. Specifically, the use of the singular form of the words "residence" and "dwelling" suggests that the ordinance is intended to prohibit only picketing focused on, and taking place in front of, a particular residence. As JUSTICE WHITE's concurrence recounts, the lower courts described the ordinance as banning "all picketing in residential areas." Post at 487 U. S. 490. But these general descriptions do not address the exact scope of the ordinance, and are in no way inconsistent with our reading of its text. "Picketing," after all, is defined as posting at a particular place, see Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1710 (1981), a characterization in line with viewing the ordinance as limited to activity focused on a single residence. Moreover, while we ordinarily defer to lower court constructions of state statutes, see supra, at 487 U. S. 482, we do not invariably do so, see Virginia v. American Booksellers Assn., supra, at 484 U. S. 395. We are particularly reluctant to defer when the lower courts have fallen into plain error, see Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc., supra, at 472 U. S. 500, n. 9, which is precisely the situation presented here. To the extent they endorsed a broad reading of the ordinance, the lower courts ran afoul of the well-established principle that statutes will be interpreted to avoid constitutional difficulties. See, e.g., Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U. S. 205, 422 U. S. 216 (1975); Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U. S. 601, 413 U. S. 613 (1973). Cf. DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building & Construction Trades Council, 485 U. S. 568, 485 U. S. 575 (1988). Thus, unlike the lower courts' judgment that the ordinance does not contain an implied exception for labor picketing, we are unable to accept their potentially broader view of the ordinance's scope. We instead construe the ordinance more narrowly. This narrow reading is supported by the representations of counsel for the town at oral argument, which indicate that the town takes, and will enforce, a limited view of the "picketing" proscribed by the ordinance. Thus, generally speaking, "picketing would be having the picket proceed on a definite course or route in front of a home." Tr. of Oral Arg. 8. The picket need not be carrying a sign, id. at 14, but, in order to fall within the scope of the ordinance, the picketing must be directed at a single residence, id. at 9. General marching through residential neighborhoods, or even walking a route in front of an entire block of houses, is not prohibited by this ordinance. Id. at 15. Accordingly, we construe the ban to be a limited one; only focused picketing taking place solely in front of a particular residence is prohibited.

So narrowed, the ordinance permits the more general dissemination of a message. As appellants explain, the limited nature of the prohibition makes it virtually self-evident that ample alternatives remain:

Protestors have not been barred from the residential neighborhoods. They may enter such neighborhoods, alone or in groups, even marching.... They may go door-to-door to proselytize their views. They may distribute literature in this manner... or through the mails. They may contact residents by telephone, short of harassment.

Brief for Appellants 41-42 (citations omitted).

We readily agree that the ordinance preserves ample alternative channels of communication, and thus move on to inquire whether the ordinance serves a significant government interest. We find that such an interest is identified within the text of the ordinance itself: the protection of residential privacy. See App. to Juris. Statement A-26.

The State's interest in protecting the wellbeing, tranquility, and privacy of the home is certainly of the highest order in a free and civilized society.

Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. at 447 U. S. 471. Our prior decisions have often remarked on the unique nature of the home, "the last citadel of the tired, the weary, and the sick," Gregory v. Chicago, 394 U. S. 111, 394 U. S. 125 (1969) (Black, J., concurring), and have recognized that

[p]reserving the sanctity of the home, the one retreat to which men and women can repair to escape from the tribulations of their daily pursuits, is surely an important value.

Carey, supra, at 447 U. S. 471.

One important aspect of residential privacy is protection of the unwilling listener. Although, in many locations, we expect individuals simply to avoid speech they do not want to hear, cf. Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, supra, at 422 U. S. 210 -211; Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15, 403 U. S. 21 -22 (1971), the home is different.

That we are often 'captives' outside the sanctuary of the home and subject to objectionable speech... does not mean we must be captives everywhere.

Rowan v. Post Office Dept., 397 U. S. 728, 397 U. S. 738 (1970). Instead, a special benefit of the privacy all citizens enjoy within their own walls, which the State may legislate to protect, is an ability to avoid intrusions. Thus, we have repeatedly held that individuals are not required to welcome unwanted speech into their own homes, and that the government may protect this freedom. See, e.g., FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726, 438 U. S. 748 -749 (1978) (offensive radio broadcasts); id. at 438 U. S. 759 -760 (Powell, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (same); Rowan, supra, (offensive mailings); Kovacs v. Cooper, 336 U. S. 77, 336 U. S. 86 -87 (1949) (sound trucks).

This principle is reflected even in prior decisions in which we have invalidated complete bans on expressive activity, including bans operating in residential areas. See, e.g., Schneider v. State, 308 U. S. 147, 308 U. S. 162 -163 (1939) (handbilling); Martin v. Struthers, 319 U. S. 141 (1943) (door-to-door solicitation). In all such cases, we have been careful to acknowledge that unwilling listeners may be protected when within their own homes. In Schneider, for example, in striking down a complete ban on handbilling, we spoke of a right to distribute literature only "to one willing to receive it." Similarly, when we invalidated a ban on door-to-door solicitation in Martin, we did so on the basis that the "home owner could protect himself from such intrusion by an appropriate sign that he is unwilling to be disturbed.'" Kovacs, 336 U.S. at 336 U. S. 86. We have "never intimated that the visitor could insert a foot in the door and insist on a hearing." Ibid. There simply is no right to force speech into the home of an unwilling listener.

It remains to be considered, however, whether the Brookfield ordinance is narrowly tailored to protect only unwilling recipients of the communications. A statute is narrowly tailored if it targets and eliminates no more than the exact source of the "evil" it seeks to remedy. City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U. S. 789, 466 U. S. 808 -810 (1984). A complete ban can be narrowly tailored, but only if each activity within the proscription's scope is an appropriately targeted evil. For example, in Taxpayers for Vincent, we upheld an ordinance that banned all signs on public property because the interest supporting the regulation, an esthetic interest in avoiding visual clutter and blight, rendered each sign an evil. Complete prohibition was necessary because

the substantive evil -visual blight -[was] not merely a possible byproduct of the activity, but [was] created by the medium of expression itself.

Id. at 466 U. S. 810.

The same is true here. The type of focused picketing prohibited by the Brookfield ordinance is fundamentally different from more generally directed means of communication that may not be completely banned in residential areas. See, e.g., Schneider, supra, at 380 U. S. 162 -163 (handbilling); Martin, supra, (solicitation); Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U. S. 105 (1943) (solicitation). See also Gregory v. Chicago, supra, (marching). Cf. Perry, 460 U.S. at 460 U. S. 45 (in traditional public forum, "the government may not prohibit all communicative activity"). In such cases "the flow of information [is not] into... household[s], but to the public." Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U. S. 415, 402 U. S. 420 (1971). Here, in contrast, the picketing is narrowly directed at the household, not the public. The type of picketers banned by the Brookfield ordinance generally do not seek to disseminate a message to the general public, but to intrude upon the targeted resident, and to do so in an especially offensive way. Moreover, even if some such picketers have a broader communicative purpose, their activity nonetheless inherently and offensively intrudes on residential privacy. The devastating effect of targeted picketing on the quiet enjoyment of the home is beyond doubt:

'To those inside,... the home becomes something less than a home when and while the picketing... continue[s].... [The] tensions and pressures may be psychological, not physical, but they are not, for that reason, less inimical to family privacy and truly domestic tranquility.'

Carey, 447 U.S. at 447 U. S. 478 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting) (quoting Wauwatosa v. King, 49 Wis.2d 398, 411-412, 182 N.W.2d 530, 537 (1971)).

In this case, for example, appellees subjected the doctor and his family to the presence of a relatively large group of protestors on their doorstep in an attempt to force the doctor to cease performing abortions. But the actual size of the group is irrelevant; even a solitary picket can invade residential privacy. See Carey, supra, at 447 U. S. 478 -479 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting) ("Whether... alone or accompanied by others... there are few of us that would feel comfortable knowing that a stranger lurks outside our home"). The offensive and disturbing nature of the form of the communication banned by the Brookfield ordinance thus can scarcely be questioned. Cf. Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U. S. 60, 463 U. S. 83 -84 (1983) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment) (as opposed to regulation of communications due to the ideas expressed, which "strikes at the core of First Amendment values," "regulations of form and context may strike a constitutionally appropriate balance between the advocate's right to convey a message and the recipient's interest in the quality of his environment").

The First Amendment permits the government to prohibit offensive speech as intrusive when the "captive" audience cannot avoid the objectionable speech. See Consolidated Edison Co. v. Public Service Comm'n of New York, 447 U. S. 530, 447 U. S. 542 (1980). Cf. Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., supra, at 463 U. S. 72. The target of the focused picketing banned by the Brookfield ordinance is just such a "captive." The resident is figuratively, and perhaps literally, trapped within the home, and, because of the unique and subtle impact of such picketing, is left with no ready means of avoiding the unwanted speech. Cf. Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. at 403 U. S. 21 -22 (noting ease of avoiding unwanted speech in other circumstances). Thus, the "evil" of targeted residential picketing, "the very presence of an unwelcome visitor at the home," Carey, supra, at 447 U. S. 478 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting), is "created by the medium of expression itself." See Taxpayers for Vincent, supra, at 466 U. S. 810. Accordingly, the Brookfield ordinance's complete ban of that particular medium of expression is narrowly tailored.

Of course, this case presents only a facial challenge to the ordinance. Particular hypothetical applications of the ordinance -to, for example, a particular resident's use of his or her home as a place of business or public meeting, or to picketers present at a particular home by invitation of the resident -may present somewhat different questions. Initially, the ordinance by its own terms may not apply in such circumstances, since the ordinance's goal is the protection of residential privacy, App. to Juris. Statement A-26, and since it speaks only of a "residence or dwelling," not a place of business, id. at A-28. Cf. Carey, supra, at 447 U. S. 457 (quoting an antipicketing ordinance expressly rendered inapplicable by use of home as a place of business or to hold a public meeting). Moreover, since our First Amendment analysis is grounded in protection of the unwilling residential listener, the constitutionality of applying the ordinance to such hypotheticals remains open to question. These are, however, questions we need not address today in order to dispose of appellees' facial challenge.

Because the picketing prohibited by the Brookfield ordinance is speech directed primarily at those who are presumptively unwilling to receive it, the State has a substantial and justifiable interest in banning it. The nature and scope of this interest make the ban narrowly tailored. The ordinance also leaves open ample alternative channels of communication and is content-neutral. Thus, largely because of its narrow scope, the facial challenge to the ordinance must fail. The contrary judgment of the Court of Appeals is


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