Restricting Content Without Restricting Content: Is Springfield’s Anti-Panhandling Ordinance Truly “Content-Neutral?”

Author: Collin L. Ryan, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Springfield, Illinois enacted an ordinance that prohibits panhandling within the city’s downtown historical district—an area that comprises “less than 2% of the City’s area but contain[s] its principal shopping, entertainment, and governmental areas, including the Statehouse and many state-government buildings.”[1] “The ordinance defines panhandling, in pertinent part, as [a]ny solicitation made in person . . . in which a person requests an immediate donation of money or other gratuity.”[2] The ordinance does, however, permit the use of signs with written requests for donations, as well as requests for donations at a later time.[3]

Plaintiffs, the recipients of citations for violating the ordinance, sought a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the ordinance.[4] When considering whether to grant or deny a preliminary injunction, a court must consider, among other factors, whether plaintiffs are “likely to succeed on the merits.”[5] Here, the question of the plaintiffs’ “likely success on the merits” hinged upon the distinction between content-neutral and content-based restrictions on free speech.

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