The City of Springfield, Illinois has an ordinance that prohibits panhandling in its downtown historic district. That district comprises about 2% of the City. The ordinance defines panhandling as an oral request for an immediate donation of money. The ordinance permits, however, signs requesting money and oral pleas to send money later. Individuals who were cited under this ordinance filed suit against the City, claiming that the ordinance violated their First amendment rights. The 7th Circuit recently ruled in favor of the City, finding the ordinance content-neutral and constitutional. Norton v. Springfield (7th Cir. Sept. 25, 2014).
The Seventh Circuit first reviewed decisions from five other courts of appeals, finding that three circuits found similar ordinances content-based (9th, 4th and 6th), while two circuits found anti-panhandling ordinances content-neutral (D.C and 1st). Although the various panhandling ordinances were different in some respects, they all prohibit requests for money or valuables to be handed over immediately. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed anti-panhandling ordinances in three cases, finding that a state fair could prohibit panhandling, a Postal Service could prohibit fundraising, and an airport authority could prohibit solicitation.
The Seventh Circuit held that the ordinance was indifferent as to the requester's reason for seeking money, and, therefore, "Springfield has not meddled with the marketplace of ideas" in enacting the restriction. The court also noted that panhandlers are free to ask for money anywhere else in Springfield. The court acknowledged the conflict between the circuits, recognizing that it is difficult to determine the line between content-based and content-neutral regulations. The court concluded, however, that Springfield's ordinance was content-neutral and within the City's power.
The dissent, on the other hand, thought the ordinance was content-based and that the court should follow the decisions of the 9th, 4th, and 6th circuits finding these panhandling ordinances unconstitutional. Because the ordinance exempts requests for money (i.e., by use of a sign or a "deferred request"), in the dissent's view, the ordinance restricts the speaker's message based on what he or she says. Because the ordinance is content-based, the dissent would have found it unconstitutional under the First Amendment's strict scrutiny standard.
Municipalities may want to review their current anti-panhandling regulations to ensure that they are consistent with the Seventh Circuit's analysis and ruling in this case.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf