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Free speech ordinance proposed for Fremont Street Experience

After nearly 15 years, free speech peace on Fremont Street might finally be at hand.

Las Vegas officials, Fremont Street Experience operators and American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada activists have worked out an ordinance that concerns itself with subjects such as pedestrian traffic and safety instead of trying to ban activities that courts ruled are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The ordinance will be discussed in a City Council subcommittee this morning. The full council could consider passing the measure as soon as Feb. 2.

Street performers and “solicitors,” such as people handing out fliers, would be allowed at the Fremont Street Experience provided they don’t block pedestrian traffic or aggressively seek donations from passers-by.

Instead of establishing a “free expression zone” for those activities as originally proposed, the ordinance states that the performance or solicitation must be at least 20 feet from building entrances and ATMs, at least 10 feet from retail kiosks and at least 20 feet from fire lanes or crosswalks. They also cannot use areas unavailable to the public, such as the Fremont Street Experience’s stages.

“One thing that I’m going to propose is a separation from outside dining,” added City Attorney Brad Jerbic, so that solicitors aren’t approaching restaurant customers as they eat on a Fremont Street patio area.

There are also space restrictions, noted Jerbic. A performer could carve out a 2-foot circle, for example, and any tables set up — for instance, to pass out literature for a cause — could be no larger than 3 feet square and could not have stuff stacked up around it.

Street performers could collect tips but could not require a fee for their act.

There would also be bans on shooting objects into the air, hula hoops larger than 4 feet and amplifiers or megaphones except in areas that don’t interfere with stage shows. Those bans would not apply to activities sponsored by the Fremont Street Experience.

Nevada ACLU officials are satisfied that the proposed ordinance protects constitutional rights, said Allen Lichtenstein, the group’s general counsel.

“It will give enough space for people to exercise their First Amendment right while not interfering with businesses,” he said.

The legal fight over the Fremont Street Experience started in 1997, when the ACLU challenged a city ordinance banning many activities on the pedestrian mall underneath the giant video screen downtown.

After the laws were found problematic in federal court, city officials revised them in 2006, and they were challenged again. In early 2009, a federal judge said the revised ordinances did more than simply strive to maintain an orderly public environment and threw them out.

Officials with a private entity, Fremont Street Experience LLC, oversee the pedestrian mall, and they handle leases of retail kiosks on the mall and the parking garage.

The mall is considered a public forum, just like any other city street or sidewalk, but the judge noted that city officials have interests in preventing pedestrian bottlenecks and fostering a fruitful commercial environment for the businesses at the attraction.

City officials initially turned to the “free expression zones” idea but backed off after ACLU leaders said they would challenge it in court if it passed.

During the time that the proposed ordinance has been discussed, Fremont Street has seen an influx of street performers, mostly people who dress up as showgirls or celebrities and pose for pictures with tourists in exchange for a tip.

There have also been some demonstrations that took up significant space on the mall and featured megaphone-wielding speakers who chased crowds away. Fremont Street Experience personnel used those examples to argue against simply having no regulations for the tourist hot spot.

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

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