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Free Speech Faces Off With Chaos At The Fremont Street Experience

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Fremont Street Experience street peformers
Associated Press

While the city of Las Vegas tries to rein in the chaos at the Fremont Street Experience, it is bumping up against the free speech rights of performers.

After a shooting and a few stabbings a few years ago, city officials got serious about the chaos at the Fremont Street Experience.

The Experience is downtown's casino row, a pedestrian-only street covered by a lighted canopy. Last year, the city approved strict laws on liquor consumption there.

But the chaos remains.

Now the city wants to tackle the issue of buskers, or street performers. These include not only musicians but also those in costumes—sometimes nothing more than men in jock-straps or women baring breasts covered only with pasties.

Needless to say, not everyone considers someone in a jockstrap “entertainment.” Then again, some say restricting anyone’s expression violates their free speech rights.

The attorney for the city of Las Vegas, Brad Jerbic, told KNPR’s State of Nevada that an ordinance being crafted right now would be modeled after restrictions used in Santa Monica, where street performers at the 3rd Street Promenade are regulated.

The so-called performance zones would keep performers in one place for a specific amount time.

“The goal is not to exclude these performers from reaching the audience that they’re reaching right now. It’s to allow them reach the audience in an organized less chaotic way,“ Jerbic said.

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He said the zones would not impact solicitors, panhandlers, picketers or union activity.

“The street performers can do what they’re doing now but they just have to do it in a particular spot and move at a particular time,” Jerbic said.

However, free speech attorney Maggie McClutchie has concerns about those zones and where they would be. McClutchie said the ninth circuit court of appeals has ruled time and again that the Fremont Street Experience is a public forum.

There have been disputes in the past about free speech under the canopy because of the unusual agreement between the city and the company that runs the Fremont Street Experience.

McClutchie said that is precisely the problem. She doesn’t believe that company should be enforcing any rules put in place by the city.

“The biggest concern I have with Mr. Jerbic’s explanation of what the ordinance will look like is who is going to enforce this? It’s not up to the Fremont Street Experience company to control speech there,” McClutchie said.

She said she is open to the idea of free speech areas, but the details of how they will be controlled and enforced matter.

City Councilman Bob Coffin believes it is a problem that needs to be confronted. He pointed to some performers wearing very little in an effort to get attention. He is concerned that scantily clad performers are there at all hours of the day, even when children are at the Fremont Street Experience.

“A guy in a jock strap with a bare ass hanging out at the heights of the eyeballs of a 5 or 6 or 8 year old, that’s inappropriate. That has never been part of this town’s culture –ever,” Coffin said.

Coffin understands that most people are down there to make some money, but a lot of it he believes is disgusting.

“It’s not about beauty down there. It’s not about the free expression of the human body being an artistic object. It’s about how ugly you can make your body,” Coffin said.

Guests

Bob Coffin, councilman, Las Vegas City Council; Brad Jerbic, attorney, City of Las Vegas; Maggie McCletchie, attorney; Jerry Lechner, owner, Double Infinity Entertainment

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