Las Vegas officials poised to eliminate sign content restrictions

Sidewalk-level signs for the Lily of the Valley Wedding Chapel and the Marriage Commission of Las Vegas (actually a private business) advertise weddings for $50.

Downtown, on or near Fremont Street, hotels advertise their rates — $39.95! — or the fact that they offer weekly rentals.

On Las Vegas Boulevard, the Holiday House hotel near the Stratosphere boasts that it’s the “best lodging value on the Strip.”

What do these signs have in common?

A Las Vegas city ordinance makes them illegal.

“Years ago, I looked at that ordinance,” said Cliff Evarts, who runs the Marriage Commission and other downtown wedding chapels. He asked city officials about it. “They said they don’t enforce it.

“I routinely ignored that over the years and never gave it a second thought,” Evarts said.

City officials gave the regulations another look, however, after a complaint about a sign was received, said Deputy City Attorney Val Steed. They concluded there’s no point in having an ordinance if it’s not enforced, and if the city tried to do so, First Amendment trouble would probably follow.

“Under First Amendment speech doctrine, the Supreme Court has been pretty strong-minded about treating laws that go after advertising that is not inherently deceptive as being violative of the First Amendment free speech protections,” said Tom McAffee, a professor at the Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The sections of city code up for repeal regulate signs on hotels and wedding chapel properties.

They ban those businesses from having signs advertising the rates for a room or a wedding service or using phrases referring to special rates or services.

The code also prohibits advertising perks or freebies, such as meals or show tickets. Violations would be misdemeanors punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to six months in jail.

It appears the provisions were added in the early 1960s, Steed said.

His research indicated that signs such as the ones being restricted “made the downtown and the Strip look trashy and too busy,” he said.

Case law today, though, holds that sign regulations have to apply to every business, and that the city must have a good reason for its restrictions.

Examples of banned phrases cited in city code include “lowest rates,” “weekly rates,” “family units,” “free meals,” “free television” and “free drinks.” Wedding chapels are not supposed to have signs advertising things such as free transportation or a free witness to the ceremony.

Wedding chapels and hotels also are banned from using “the word ‘dollar’ or the symbol thereof.”

Clark County has similar language in its code. County officials did not respond to questions about whether the rules are enforced.

North Las Vegas has similar regulations but only for hotels, not wedding chapels. Establishments are allowed to display prices under certain conditions.

Henderson doesn’t regulate the content of signs, a city spokeswoman said.

That’s the way courts like it as long as a sign isn’t deceptive, McAffee said.

“In the last decade, the (U.S. Supreme) Court has gotten more tenacious in protecting commercial speech,” he said.

“These strike me as being perfectly reasonable efforts at advertising. I was almost stunned that they would have rules like that on the books,” McAffee said.

An ordinance repealing the restrictions is scheduled to be taken up Tuesday by a City Council subcommittee. It could be before the full council as soon as September.

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

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