Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

Currently: 70° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Smut dealers play games with newsrack rules

"Newsrack" is a deceiving term in Clark County.

Rifle through the 2,800 permitted racks on county sidewalks and you'll find advertisements for strippers, topless clubs and escort services.

What you won't find is a newspaper.

In fact, only six newsracks contain publications that do not exclusively advertise adult entertainment - and most of those are real estate advertising magazines.

Call it a case of good intentions gone very bad.

More than a decade ago, county officials, hoping to curtail, if not eliminate, the dozens of people passing out smutty fliers on the Strip and other resort corridors, instituted a lottery for newsrack operators interested in using sidewalk real estate to promote their products.

The thinking was that even smut peddlers would see the economic advantages of using newsstands rather than sidewalk hawkers. And under a best-case scenario, mainstream publications such as real estate or job-training magazines might grab many of the newsrack sites, further minimizing the presence of those promoting more unsavory offerings. It has not worked out that way, however.

Today, smutty publications hold a monopoly on the Strip, thanks to their owners' ingenuity in figuring out a way to essentially stuff the lottery ballot box. And the handbill distributors who form a kind of human slalom for anyone walking along the Strip are just as omnipresent as they have always been.

On Wednesday, for example, a group of four people handed out brochures and fliers in front of the McDonald's next to the Stardust. One enterprising peddler stashed stacks of booklets into the bark of a palm tree, turning the trunk into his own personal filing cabinet.

"Very annoying," one tourist said as he weaved his way through the group.

Even in searing temperatures, scores of handbill distributors pop up on the Strip nightly. In cooler temperatures, more than 100 swarm Nevada's most popular pedestrian thoroughfare, county officials say.

In short, the newsracks have done little to discourage the handing out of handbills that often contain barely legal material.

"We wanted to get rid of smut peddlers," Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said. "Now we have handbillers and newsstands."

That problem, along with the litter that some commissioners associate with newsracks, resulted in commissioners asking county staff and the district attorney's office earlier this month to look at what can be done differently.

Many trace the difficulties to the lottery that was used in the early 1990s to divvy up newsrack locations.

Several adult advertising companies applied for permits under many publication names, essentially stacking the deck against competitors and other kinds of publications.

For example, Gary Sellinger, who owns Official Las Vegas Magazine Inc., operates under the names LV (News) Today, True Match Singles, LV Value Pack, Pleasure Guide, Play Pen Girls and Dream Girls. He holds 776 newsrack permits.

One of his competitors operates under at least 11 names.

"I think we need to look at the whole idea of a lottery," Commissioner Myrna Williams said. "This might not be the best way to do it when the ballot box is being stuffed."

Companies awarded newsrack locations in the initial lottery can keep the sites indefinitely, so long as they pay an annual fee.

The other problem with the newsracks is the garbage they generate.

"It shouldn't be our responsibility to clean up the trash that blows out of them," Commissioner Chip Maxfield said.

But Sellinger, a critic of the newsrack ordinance, said the trash is not coming from racks, but from handbill distributors, sticking them in fences and attaching them to utility poles.

"Those are the people who don't have newsrack permits," he said. "The handbillers came after the newsracks and after the county's ordinance forced everyone out."

Les Henley, the county's deputy director of construction management, oversees the enforcement of the ordinance. He says balancing complaints about lewd material with the First Amendment is tricky.

"They might not be something you want on your coffee table, but they are protected under the First Amendment unless they are blatantly pornographic," he said.

The county's rules - which, among other things, ban advertising on the sides of newsracks and stashing handbills in bushes - have set up a creative and maddening game of cat and mouse that underlines the difficulty of trying to regulate anything involving free speech. Smut peddlers, Henley said, always seem to find ways to bend or break the rules.

"It's a big dollar business," he said . "It's a fairly unique problem we have on the Strip."

In February, Henley and his crew busted a particularly bold group of adult entertainment advertisers.

Three men would cruise the Strip after dark in a beige panel van, dropping off makeshift newsracks on the curb and picking them up early in the morning to avoid detection.

The county impounded the van and about 25 "potted plants" - the nickname Henley gives to the racks, which consisted of something like a music stand with wires to hold brochures and cards, all anchored in a bucket of concrete.

Other newsrack operators are circumventing the ban against advertising on the outside of their boxes by incorporating strip club names into their publication titles. Take the name of any strip club and just add the word "news."

"We adjust and they adjust," Henley said. "It's like trying to stack BB's or herd cats."

His office is considering what changes it can make to the newsrack ordinance.

"It has to be fair to all operators," he said. "One option is to do away with all of them."

That's an idea that at least one commissioner supports.

"We ought to call them trash and get rid of them," Maxfield said.

That move is likely to bring lawsuits from operators such as Sellinger, who said he has a First Amendment right to place newsracks on public sidewalks.

Another route the county could take - and has to some extent - would be to allow Strip casinos to own the sidewalk with the agreement that pedestrians would have access .

"A lot of the newer casinos are retaining sidewalk as private property," Henley said. "They can exert control and say 'No' to these on their property. That seems to be the wave of the future."

Such is the case with the Bellagio, Wynn and Paris , he said.

But Nevada American Civil Liberties Union attorney Allen Lichtenstein said hotels have no right to ban newsracks on public thoroughfares.

In 2001 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while the land underneath the Venetian's sidewalks may be private, the sidewalk functions as a public forum and therefore the hotel could not bar union members from picketing outside.

In terms of newsracks, the issue hasn't been litigated, but because of the ruling in the Venetian case, it should be a no-brainer, Lichtenstein said.

Meanwhile, the county is waiting for a decision in U.S. District Court on whether it can ban commercial canvassing - code for handbill distributxion - in certain areas.

Until then, the handbills - and the newsracks - will continue to be almost as common as neon on the Strip.

archive