The Supreme Court on Monday gave communities nationwide broader power to ban picketing of private residences.
By a 6-3 vote, the court said such bans do not necessarily violate free-speech rights.The decision is a defeat for anti-abortion activists who were barred from picketing a doctor's home in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, Wis.
The ruling could also represent a significant setback for unions locked in labor disputes.
In another case, the court gave defense contractors important protection against lawsuits by people who accuse them of making defective equipment that causes death or injury.
The justices, by a 5-4 vote, refused to reinstate a $725,000 award to the family of a Marine helicopter co-pilot who died in a 1983 crash in the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach, Va.
In the picketing case, a Brookfield ordinance that outlaws "picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual" is tailored narrowly enough to protect freedom of speech while protecting residents' privacy, the court said.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court, said the ordinance is limited to "picketing taking place solely in front of a particular residence."
"So narrowed, the ordinance permits the more general dissemination of a message," O'Connor said. "General marching through residential neighborhoods, or even walking a route in front of an entire block of houses, is not prohibited by this ordinance."
But Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissenting opinion, said Brookfield's ordinance makes it "unlawful for a fifth-grader to carry a sign (saying) `Get Well Charlie - Our Team Needs You' in front of a residence for a period of time necessary to convey its friendly message to its intended audience."
An anti-abortion group, the Milwaukee Coalition for Life, demonstrated in front of Dr. Benjamin Victoria's home in Brookfield on at least six occasions in 1985.
Victoria performs abortions as part of his medical practice in Milwaukee and Appleton, Wis.