Cantwell v. Connecticut

Following is the case brief for Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)

Case Summary of Cantwell v. Connecticut:

  • A man and his two sons, who were all Jehovah’s Witnesses, were going door to door in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, asking people to hear recordings about their religion.  Their preaching offended some listeners.
  • The State charged, and ultimately convicted, them of soliciting contributions without a permit, and convicted one son of inciting a breach of the peace.  The State Supreme Court affirmed the convictions.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions.  Applying the First Amendment to the States, the Court held that the permit requirement was a prior restraint on religious freedom and the breach of the peace conviction violated the defendant’s right to religious liberty and freedom of speech.

Cantwell v. Connecticut Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Morris Cantwell and his two sons, Jesse and Russell, were going door to door in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in New Haven.  With pamphlets and a portable record player, they were trying to persuade people to listen to information about their religion – Jehovah’s Witnesses – and were asking for contributions.  At one point, Jesse asked to play a recording for some onlookers, and when the recording offended the onlookers, Jesse packed up his things and went on his way.

State officials charged the Cantwells with soliciting contributions without a permit, and with inciting a breach of the peace.

Procedural History:

  • The three defendants were tried and convicted of the offenses.
  • The Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed all three convictions regarding the permit, and affirmed the conviction for breach of the peace against Jesse
  • The defendants then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that their freedom of speech and their right to the free exercise of religion under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did the convictions for failure to get a permit to solicit contributions, and for inciting a breach of the peace, violate the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause?  Yes.


The decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The First Amendment applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, and the State’s cannot put unreasonable restraints on a person’s free exercise of religion, which includes the right to preach one’s views in a reasonable setting.


The statute that requires a permit to solicit money for religious, or other purposes, is unconstitutional because it deprives the defendants of liberty without due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The fundamental concept of liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment includes the guarantees in the First Amendment.

The First Amendment safeguards the freedom for someone to believe whatever he or she wants, as well as the freedom to express or preach their religion to others.  With regard to the freedom to express or preach religion, a State can regulate the time, place, and manner generally in the interest of public safety and convenience.  However, it cannot put a prior restraint on religious speech with a licensing requirement.

Further, Jesse’s conviction for breach of the peace must be set aside because Jesse’s behavior was not so disruptive that it outweighed his freedom to express his religious beliefs.  When his religious recording offended onlookers, he walked away.  Therefore, the conviction merely punished his religious expression, which the Constitution cannot allow.


Cantwell v. Connecticut is a landmark decision because it made clear that the religious freedoms in the First Amendment applied to State and local governments.  That principle was not clear before Cantwell.  Seven years later, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was incorporated to the States in Everson v. Board of Education.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion