Stretching free speech limits


Mike Franklin's pitch to passing tourist couples in Las Vegas usually is pretty simple: "Just one question," he says. "When are y'all going home?"

If they're around for a couple more days, he tries to entice them into taking a time-share condo tour in exchange for free show tickets or a nice dinner. It's something he has been doing on the Strip for years, but Wednesday was the first time he tried his pitch downtown on Fremont Street -- and he ran right into a long-running debate on free speech.

Until last week, Las Vegas ordinances placed strict limitations on leafleting, advertising and related kinds of communication at the Fremont Street Experience.

A judge ruled them unconstitutional last week, though, so greeters like Franklin were told by their bosses to mingle freely with the tourists and make their pitches. When they did, they said, Fremont Street security guards got in their faces.

"I've been doing this 13 years, and I've never seen anything like this," he said.

In a statement, Fremont Street Experience spokesman Thomas Bruny said that there are limits to conducting business and that customers regularly complain about being harassed and stopped by people trying to get their attention.

"Businesses along or on Fremont Street Experience are not allowed to operate outside their owned or leased space without authorization of Fremont Street Experience LLC," he wrote. "Also, Fremont Street Experience is utmost concerned about the safety and enjoyment of its visitors and FSE Security responds to any guest complaint of harassment, coercion, impeding pedestrian flow or actual grabbing of a patron by a solicitor."

Those complaints are received "on a regular basis," Bruny wrote. Though ordinances at issue were struck down, Las Vegas has a separate ordinance barring aggressive solicitation, and that one is still on the books.

Franklin works for All-Star Marketing, which promotes the time-share tours and sells Grand Canyon tours. The company has locations inside the Pioneer and Tiffany gift shops on Fremont Street, but employees had not ventured outside to do business.

Until now.

As a result, co-owner Steve Kammer said employees have been subject to "major harassment."

"They, for whatever reason, really make a point that we stay inside those doors and not talk to anybody who's passing by," Kammer said. "They just really have put a damper on our business down there."

Kammer said he has tried to work with Fremont Street officials, including having his employees wear uniforms and name tags. His employees behave themselves, he said.

"We give out a lot of shows downtown. I'm hoping that superiors will try and get these guards to back off."

His employees have been told to stay behind a crease in the concrete outside the Tiffany's shop, although enforcement is sporadic.

Around noon Wednesday, when a Review-Journal reporter and photographer were at the Tiffany's location, two employees mingled freely with passers-by and were left alone by security. For a time, one security guard was recording the employees with a video camera.

Mayor Oscar Goodman said the city attorney's office will present legal options to the City Council soon, which could include appealing the decision or drafting new ordinances. Fremont Street Experience representatives and city officials are also meeting to wade through the implications of last week's ruling.

In the meantime, Fremont Street security is likely to find itself walking a free speech tightrope, balancing the right of people to non-obstructively chat up tourists versus the mall's interest in keeping pedestrian traffic flowing and maintaining a pleasant atmosphere.

There will be other handbillers. Brian Beddo, who runs Sightseeing Tours Unlimited, plans to have a crew handing out Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam information at Fremont Street soon.

He tried that about three months ago, but "they threatened to have us arrested," Beddo said. "To avoid a problem, I just went ahead and backed off."

Even the handbillers don't want to see people handing out adult escort ads, something that Clark County officials tried unsuccessfully to ban on the Strip.

Despite that history, Goodman has vowed not to allow that advertising under the Fremont Street Experience canopy.

"Of all the complaints I get as the mayor ... that's 10 to 1," he said this week. "They feel assaulted by those people on the Strip. We're not going to let that happen downtown."

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

 

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