Jehovah’s Witnesses get the keys to the gated kingdoms

Watchtower Bible & Tract Socy of N.Y. v. Municipality of San Juan, Nos. 13-1606, 13-1718, 13-1719 (1st Cir. Nov. 20, 2014).

Justice Harlan Stone once said that Jehovah’s Witnesses should be given “an endowment” because of the help they’ve given the courts “in solving the legal problems of civil liberties.” And Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly have helped to set many First Amendment precedents. Here is another one.

In Puerto Rico, people are allowed to create gated communities that bar access to otherwise public streets. Puerto Rico municipalities, however, retain regulatory authority over the gated communities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses who wanted to proselytize door to door filed suit against a number of Puerto Rico municipalities, arguing that the gated communities infringed their First Amendment rights to freely proselytize. The case went up and down the courts. Eventually, a Puerto Rico district court entered an injunction ordering municipalities to give the Jehovah’s Witnesses “unfettered” access to “unmanned” gated communities—i.e., communities without guards at the gates. (Communities with guards aren’t at issue anymore because an earlier appeal had already clarified that guards must allow proselytizers to enter.) 

This is the appeal from the district court’s injunction. The main question the First Circuit must answer is whether the district court abused its discretion in crafting its injunction. The First Circuit holds that the district court ably balanced the rights of the proselytizers against the needs of the municipalities, so its injunction was not an abuse of discretion. The only small exception is the district court’s requirement that municipalities give proselytizers “new means of access” to the gated communities (codes, keys, etc.) within 24 hours of any change. The First Circuit says that a 24-hour period is too short—if the lock is changed on a Saturday morning, for example, the proselytizers can wait until Monday for a new key. Otherwise, the district court is affirmed.