Panhandling May Be Protected Speech

A federal appellate court has ruled that an ordinance banning a certain form of panhandling downtown is unconstitutional.

The panhandlers Don Norton and Karen Otterson filed a class action lawsuit in which they alleged the City of Springfield violated their First Amendment right to free speech through an ordinance banning oral requests for immediate monetary donations in the city’s downtown. They also claimed certain Springfield police officers harassed them outside of the downtown, using a state law regarding business solicitations along roadsides.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the city’s panhandling ban doesn’t pass a test created in Reed v. Gilbert which held that more strict regulations on certain signs than on others was “content-based” regulation, a form of discrimination based on the sign’s message. Applying the Reed decision to Norton and Otterson’s case, the 7th Circuit panel held that the City of Springfield had failed to provide a “compelling justification” for why it should be allowed to distinguish between an unpopular form of speech– panhandling — and other forms of speech.

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