FOR DECADES, casinos, elected leaders and assorted interested parties have conducted a mostly losing war with outcall and escort services and several of their preferred methods of advertising, namely the ubiquitous news racks and aggressive pamphleteers on busy pedestrian areas, especially on the Strip.
But in this war, only the last battle counts. And Clark County staff and commissioners are girding their loins, preparing for their newest assault on the smut peddlers and First Amendment fundamentalists. On March 5, the Clark County Commission is prepared to get rid of news racks on Las Vegas Boulevard in the name of eliminating pedestrian congestion. The suggestion comes from a lengthy study of foot traffic on the Strip.
The same pedestrian-traffic study, chartered for $581,000 last April by the commissioners, also identifies “non-permanent” impediments (that is, people performing or passing out handbills of various kinds) as a problem to potentially eliminate.
Erik Pappa, county spokesman, says this latest effort is not about the content of the news racks or the handbills, which feature pictures of naked young women and men sporting strategically placed stars, bars or circles over their naughty bits.
“We did this pedestrian study. … We had these guys look at pedestrian flow up and down the Strip, and they found a bunch of bottlenecks,” Pappa said. “They need to remove the obstructions.”
That is, the pedestrian obstructions, not the stars, bars and circles.
He pointed out that not only news racks would be affected, but light poles, fire hydrants and trash cans could be moved or eliminated from the main pedestrian avenues.
“It’s strictly based on the need to improve traffic flow because of the safety issues involved,” he said.
Clark County requires permits for news racks in the resort corridor that includes the Strip. Companies pay an annual fee of $65 per news rack for the permits. There are 1,784 permits, including 240 active permits on Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and Russell Road.
Pappa said there may be another 2,000 to 3,000 news racks outside the resort corridor in the unincorporated county.
County commissioners have for years tried to regulate or simply ban the news racks and pamphleteers without much success. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and advertisers have successfully argued in court that the First Amendment protects the free-speech right to reach prospective customers through various mechanisms, including people passing out information on the street.
But the U.S. Supreme Court also has upheld the right of cities to restrict news racks based on their impacts to public safety or because they were unsightly, as long as the law did not discriminate against a particular kind of periodical. That is, local governments couldn’t pass a law banning the advertising of escort services (which some people suspect of being fronts for prostitution) while still allowing upstanding publications such as CityLife (which some people suspect of being a front for journalism. Full disclosure: we have some racks in the affected area).
Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU office in Las Vegas, said his organization is interested in what the county is trying to do.
“We’ll be monitoring it,” he said. “We will keep an eye on the ordinance and exactly what it is aiming to do.”