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Content-Based vs. Content-Neutral Restrictions on Free Speech

The outcome of a First Amendment case may very well hinge on whether the restriction of speech is based on the content of the speech. If the restriction is content-based, courts scrutinize the restriction under a heightened standard compared with restrictions that are content-neutral. When courts apply this heightened scrutiny, they are more likely to find a First Amendment violation. Courts also recognize that content-neutral restrictions may cause as much or more harm than content-based restrictions. For example, a ban on all parades on public streets is much more intrusive than a ban on only some parades. If a restriction is content-neutral, a court will employ an intermediate standard of scrutiny.

Determining whether a restriction is content-neutral or content-based may be more difficult in the context of assembly rights than in the context of speech rights. For example, if a city requires that all groups obtain a permit to hold a parade, the restriction is more likely, at least on its face, to be content-neutral. However, if the city, through official or unofficial action, only issues permits to certain groups and restricts issuing permits to other groups, the restriction in its application is content-based, not content neutral.

Inside Content-Based vs. Content-Neutral Restrictions on Free Speech