Clark County residents and tourists soon might be greeted by billboards, leaflets or newspaper advertisements promoting Nevada's legal brothels.
A federal judge in Las Vegas struck down two state laws Thursday that prohibited bordellos from advertising in counties, such as Clark and Washoe, where prostitution is illegal. The Nevada Legislature enacted the laws banning such ads in 1979.
U.S. District Judge James Mahan declared the statutes "overly broad" and thus unconstitutional. Civil rights advocates hailed the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment, but representatives of the brothel industry expressed ambivalence.
"Violations of anyone's free speech rights are in a sense violations of everyone's free speech rights," said Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein filed a lawsuit last year that challenged the two laws. His clients included brothel owner Bobbi Davis, the weekly Las Vegas CityLife newspaper and the weekly High Desert Advocate newspaper in West Wendover. CityLife is owned by Stephens Media, owner of the Review-Journal.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Edward Reed argued in favor of the two laws Thursday during a hearing in Mahan's courtroom. He said the advertising bans are needed to protect minors from prostitution, which is outlawed everywhere else in the country.
Lichtenstein said Nevada law still prohibits the display of material that is deemed harmful to children, such as advertisements that discuss sexual conduct.
Reed said he did not know whether his office would appeal Mahan's decision. If the office appeals, it also could seek a stay of the ruling.
"The government certainly is entitled to appeal if they want to, but I would hope that the people in charge would have the good sense not to waste their time and the taxpayers' money trying to defend the indefensible," Peck said. "They ought to instead spend their time and energy trying to craft regulations that are reasonable and constitutional."
Brothel industry lobbyist George Flint said the owners of Nevada's legal bordellos should proceed with "taste and caution" to establish an industry standard for advertising.
He said brothel owners need to avoid the sort of explicit content that could "come back to haunt them" and jeopardize the industry as a whole.
"We want to be as conservative as we can be," said Flint, who owns a Reno wedding chapel and serves as executive director for the Nevada Brothel Owners Association.
"I don't see this as a bad thing. I see this as a good thing, but it's going to be a challenge for us," he said. "I'm kind of excited about my client having the ability for the first time ever to advertise his very existence, where he's located, how to get there and so on."
Flint said Nevada is home to about 25 legal brothels, and his association represents all but two or three of them.
Davis and her husband, Jim, have owned the Shady Lady Ranch north of Beatty for the past 15 years. Jim Davis said they hope to begin running some discreet advertisements in Las Vegas.
"The thing that we're afraid of is that some of the other brothel owners won't do discreet advertising; they'll use basically pornographic type of advertising, which isn't necessary," he said. "You don't have to get wild in order to let people know where you are and what you do."
The couple primarily rely on the Internet to advertise their small bordello, where prices range from $100 for the 20-minute "basic service" to $2,000 for an overnight stay.
A two-hour drive on U.S. Highway 95 separates Las Vegas from the business, which caters to "the working man," according to its Web site.
"Today in the state of Nevada, legal brothels still exist and are still very important to those men who feel the need for out-of-home sexual experiences," reads the site's home page.
The two legal bordellos just outside of Pahrump could benefit the most from Mahan's ruling.
At a distance of about 60 miles, the Chicken Ranch and Sheri's Ranch are closer to the Strip than any other legal brothels in Nevada, something each property is sure to point out in any ads it might buy.
The manager of the Chicken Ranch declined to comment.
A message left at Sheri's corporate office was not returned Thursday evening.
Lichtenstein predicted that Mahan's ruling will have little effect on the advertising climate in Las Vegas, where provocative images from strip clubs, massage parlors, escort services and casino nightclubs abound.
"When the city's motto is 'What happens here, stays here,' we're already operating in an adult tourist atmosphere," the lawyer said.
Flint and others claim many of those businesses are fronts for illegal prostitution. Flint said he hopes the court ruling "will create a level playing field between the legal and the illegal activity."
Lichtenstein and Mahan both said that allowing legal brothels to advertise in Clark County will help educate people who come to Las Vegas with the misunderstanding that the community allows prostitution.
Reed, on the other hand, argued that the advertisements might increase interest in prostitution.
State Archivist Guy Rocha said the court ruling did not surprise him. He always considered the advertising bans unfair.
"Is it illegal to advertise casinos in Boulder City because casinos are illegal in Boulder City? Where is the equity here?" he said.
Rocha said he belongs to the ACLU but was not directly involved in the court challenge.
The archivist said legal brothels have not existed in Nevada as long as some might think. The Mustang Ranch in Storey County was Nevada's first licensed brothel. Before it was licensed in 1971, bordellos lived in a legal "gray area."
"They were tolerated. They could be abated as nuisances. But there were no licenses. There were no ordinances that made them legal," Rocha said.
Stephens Media President Sherman Frederick, publisher of the Review-Journal, said the company will consider printing brothel advertisements now that they are legal.
"It may be appropriate for some of our products but not for others," Frederick said. "Everything has a time and a place."
Review-Journal subscribers are unlikely to see brothel advertisements in the daily newspaper, Frederick said, but the advertisements might show up in special editions of the newspaper distributed exclusively on the Strip.
CityLife editor Steve Sebelius said the alternative newspaper will begin accepting brothel advertisements as soon as Mahan's order is entered.
While he welcomes the additional source of income for the publication, Sebelius said, he does not consider it a gold mine.
"For me, the thing was the principle, not necessarily the money," he said.