Free Speech Butts Against Tourist Safety Downtown

Fremont Street Experience ordinance limits street performers.

Photo by Emmily Bristol

Photo by Emmily Bristol

Life under the Fremont Street Experience canopy could be a lot different when new rules are scheduled to be enforced on Nov. 16. Recent violence—including a shooting in 2013—is one of the reasons the Las Vegas City Council passed the new law that institutes a permit process and restricted zones for street performers.

Under the new ordinance, street performers, also called buskers, will have to apply for one of 38 permits available by random lottery each day in order to work on the pedestrian-only Experience between the hours of 3 p.m. and 2 a.m.

The ordinance was modeled after a similar law regulating buskers at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, according to a KNPR interview earlier this year with City Attorney Brad Jerbic. In the same interview, Councilman Bob Coffin complained about what he called “inappropriate” performers “with a bare ass hanging out.” Both Jerbic and Coffin did not return repeated calls for comment.

A self-proclaimed visual entertainer wearing a pink bikini who goes by “Bunny,” says he was more concerned about comments by council members, whom he called “filled with hate,” than the ordinance itself.

“[Councilman Coffin] is the biggest attacker. He kept saying trans-phobic comments about ‘fat man ass,’” Bunny says. “For the most part, we’re family down here. Even people who don’t like each other look after each other. Some people who are out here are [just] trying to make a few bucks to pay their rent or they’d be homeless.”

Not all Fremont Street performers play well with others, however. The new ordinance has caused a further rift between two segments of street performers—the mellower daytime buskers and a rowdy group of more aggressive performers—says balloonist Sandi Adao.

“I don’t mind the naked people, the topless nuns and showgirls,” says Adao, who is in favor of the ordinance. “Then you have the ones who are aggressive.” One issue mentioned by multiple Fremont Street buskers has been the proliferation of costumed performers who seek children for photo ops and then hit up their parents for money.

Turf wars between performers are also another problem. Adao says she’s been frequently harassed by performers who will block her sign or start fights over sidewalk space. “It’s that attitude that’s ruined the Fremont Street Experience,” she says.

Army veteran Thom Martin (pictured above), who offers flowers made of palm leaves for donations that he lives on, is looking forward to the ordinance, too.

“I wish the ordinance was stronger,” he says. “I want them to get more strict about performers who are drinking, because it causes problems.”

Still, some buskers are on the fence about the rule.

“It’s more like a double-edged sword. I’m not sure about it,” says Buddy Big Mountain, a registered member of the Mohawk of Kahnawake Tribe of Canada, who performs traditional dances with a Native American marionette. The privately held tourist attraction has been the frequent subject of First Amendment controversy, including a unanimous 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2003, which ruled that there is a First Amendment right to distribute leaflets and collect petitions, among other constitutionally protected activities. In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada again raised First Amendment issues about prohibitions at Fremont Street Experience.

It’s unclear if there will be any court challenges to the new ordinance, but free-speech advocates Maggie McLetchie and Allen Lichtenstein have each raised concerns about the vague language in the law, including what constitutes a violation.

ACLU of Nevada executive director Tod Story says his office worked with the City to draft the ordinance. “We believe it protects the rights of performers. We’re pleased with the outcome,” he says. 

Photo by Emmily Bristol

Vegas Seven