While seeking to get the city to end the curfew and restrictions on the area, the ACLU said another goal of the lawsuit was “to remind people this is a public street and a public forum.” (Photo: Bridget Bennet)
Nearly two decades after a court ruled the Fremont Street Experience is a public forum, a space protected from free speech infringement, the ACLU of Nevada is suing the City of Las Vegas again over recent efforts to restrict people younger than 21 and street performers inside a pedestrian mall.
In a lawsuit filed this week, the ACLU is arguing that a special permit approved by the city for the Fremont Street Experience that confines access to those older than 21 and includes other prohibitions like “no costume masks” and “no face paint” violates the First Amendment.
During a press conference Thursday, Chris Peterson, the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada, said the city is playing favoritism by allowing a private company to regulate a public space.
“Most troubling, the City of Las vegas has authorized the Fremont Street Limited Liability Corporation to regulate the First Amendment activities of other individuals on the pedestrian mall,” he said. “They’ve basically allowed a private entity that has its own selfish interest in the pedestrian mall that engages in its own First Amendment activities on the pedestrian mall to control the First Amendment activities of other individuals.”
The city of Las Vegas granted Fremont Street a special permit for a recurring event called “Festivus” in July, which runs each weekend through Nov. 27 and applies restrictions every Friday through Sunday.
In an email, Jace Radke, a spokesman for the city, said “It is the city of Las Vegas’ practice not to comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”
It’s not the first time the ACLU has challenged, and won, against the City of Las Vegas and Fremont Street Experience attempting to place restrictions on people leafleting in the pedestrian mall.
“It has been recognized as a public forum by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and they have made it abundantly clear that as a traditional public forum that is where our First Amendment rights are strongest,” Peterson said, referencing a 2003 decision.
Recently, the city mulled an ordinance that would impose a curfew for the area, arguing there had been incidents involving people under 21 that justified the proposal. The proposed ordinance has only been heard at a recommending committee meeting, but no data was presented to support those claims.
Athar Haseebullah, the executive director for the ACLU of Nevada, said that for the last year they’ve asked the city to present data that “shows 18 to 21 year olds pose a great safety threat, as being suggested,” but to no avail.
The recommending committee approved the proposal Aug. 1 and advanced it to be heard by the City Council.
Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore, a member of the recommendation committee, opposed the measure arguing the ordinance was too broad.
“I don’t want the city of Las Vegas to be a police city,” she said. “We have people who are not 21 who work down there. We can’t keep making exemptions.”
While Councilmen Brian Knudsen and Stavros Anthony voted to advance the measure, they asked for data to be presented at the council meeting.
The council was supposed to hear the ordinance later in August, but the item was pulled. Even without the ordinance, the special event permit allows the Fremont Street Experience to implement restrictions.
Haseebullah called this a “slap in the face.”
“Instead of doing a data presentation, which would have likely showed that 18 to 21 year olds are not a greater safety threat than anyone else and the numbers are probably negligible, they pulled the entire curfew ordinance, and the only reason the entire curfew is moving forward is because of a special event permit,” he said. “At this point, we can’t allow continuous delays when people’s rights are being trampled upon and when 18 to 21 year olds who share a right to go to that street still don’t have access to it and are being turned away because of arbitrary measures, only because they can’t purchase alcohol and can’t legally gamble, which from our vantage point doesn’t strike to the core of public safety.”
The lawsuit also includes two 18 year olds who were recently turned away from the Fremont Street Experience and a street performer named Mr. Gordon, who Peterson said has been active in the area for 11 years.
“Over the last few months he has experienced increased pressure from Fremont street security to limit his performances,” Peterson said. “They have impounded equipment he has used for performances. They have closed down the street when they want to put on their shows baring anyone else who wants to perform on the street.”
While seeking to get the city to end the curfew and restrictions on the area, Peterson said another goal of the lawsuit was “to remind people this is a public street and a public forum.”
“We do not want private corporations taking over our streets,” Peterson said. “In a modern American city, the rights of one private person are not favored over the rights of others in places that are public streets and public forums.”
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