Seventh Circuit Review


One of the defining characteristics of the U.S. Constitution is its guarantee of certain enumerated rights, including the right to free speech. The First Amendment guards against governmental regulations that infringe on the right to free speech. In recent years, local governments across the nation have enacted local laws and ordinances that regulate or prohibit panhandling in certain areas. In Norton v. City of Springfield, the Seventh Circuit reviewed and upheld one such ordinance prohibiting panhandling in the downtown historic areas. The Springfield ordinance defined panhandling as an oral request for immediate donation of money. The downtown historic district at issue was a small portion of the City of Springfield but comprised the city’s principal shopping, entertainment, and governmental areas. In reviewing this ordinance, the Seventh Circuit found that the ordinance was content-neutral and constitutional under the First Amendment.

When governmental regulations restrict speech, such as the ordinance in Norton, the speech restriction is classified as either a content-based or content-neutral restriction. Content-based restrictions are those that regulate speech because of its message, idea, or content. Content-neutral restrictions are those that regulate speech without reference to the message, idea, or content of the speech. Content-based speech restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny review, which means that the restriction must serve a compelling governmental interest that is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. Content-neutral speech restrictions, on the other hand, are subject to intermediate scrutiny, which means that the restriction must serve a significant governmental interest and still leave alternative channels of communicating the speech. In addition, if the speech restriction takes place in a traditional public forum, the restriction must be narrowly tailored to achieve the purported governmental interest.

When the Seventh Circuit held that the ordinance in Norton was a content-neutral speech restriction, the Seventh Circuit departed from the majority of the federal circuits that have addressed this very issue. Because the Supreme Court has yet to address panhandling restrictions, this article first analyzes the framework that has been established in cases involving restrictions on solicitations in general. This article then discusses the decisions of the federal circuit courts on panhandling restrictions. Then, this article explains how the Seventh Circuit came to find that Springfield ordinance on panhandling was a valid content-neutral restriction. Finally, this article argues that the Seventh Circuit incorrectly classified the Springfield ordinance as a content-neutral speech restriction and, as a result, incorrectly held that it was a valid, content-neutral speech restriction.

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