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October 21, 2014

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News rack owners gear up for battle should Strip ban win approval

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Christopher DeVargas

Eddie Munoz owns and operates numerous news racks along Las Vegas Boulevard. The news racks are the subject of a proposed countywide ban. Munoz is seen Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013.

Pedestrian Congestion on the Strip

Pedestrians wait to cross the drive leading to the Bellagio on the Strip Friday, Oct. 25, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas Boulevard News Racks

Eddie Munoz owns and operates numerous news racks along Las Vegas Boulevard. The news racks are the subject of a proposed countywide ban. Munoz is seen Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Grabbing the tape measure from his right-hip pocket, Eddie Munoz quickly snaps out the yellow ribbon in an attempt to prove a point.

“Four feet,” he mutters as he measures from Las Vegas Boulevard to the traffic signal pole in the middle of the sidewalk near Convention Center Drive.

Moving a bit further up the block, Munoz makes another measurement, this time from the street to one of the 150 news racks he operates on the Strip.

“Six feet,” he says. “That’s not an obstruction. A blind man can see what needs to be moved out there.”

What does and does not constitute an obstruction on the sidewalks of the region’s busiest corridor has become a topic of increased importance to Munoz and others who rely on news racks to make a living or distribute their publications.

As part of an attempt to clean up the sidewalks by moving trash cans, fire hydrants or utility poles, Clark County is also considering an outright ban on the news racks, which offer everything from dining and shopping guides to adult-themed advertisements, that dot the Strip. The ban would stretch from Sahara Avenue to Russell Road and 300 feet east or west of the Strip. It would affect several hundred news racks.

With a little over a week before the county commission is scheduled to take up the issue at its Nov. 5 meeting, Munoz and other operators of Strip news racks are looking for potential compromises, and failing that, a lawsuit. Their goal is to save their businesses, which they believe are being unfairly targeted under the auspices of public safety for some of the adult publications they carry.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that adult-oriented businesses and advertisements have always been disfavored,” said Kathryn Gentile, who owns and operates more than 100 Strip news racks through her company, Southwest Advertising. “I believe this is simply another attempt to ban that and circumvent the First Amendment.”

Commissioners say they’re open to discussing alternatives, adding owners of the news racks haven’t approached them with any solutions.

The commission already has been discussing ways to clean up the Strip and rid as many obstructions from the sidewalk as possible.

Similar attempts to remove handbillers from the Strip failed in the face of First Amendment legal challenges, providing a potential lesson as commissioners turn their attention to other perceived obstructions.

A 2011 working group’s commission recommendation led to a $581,000 pedestrian study completed in November 2012. The study found 17 sections of sidewalk and pedestrian bridges with excessive congestion levels compared to national standards.

As a follow-up to that report, the county plans to spend more than $3.1 million replacing and widening sidewalks, complying with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and moving more than 200 poorly placed obstructions that get in pedestrians' way, ranging from fire hydrants to traffic signal poles to utility boxes.

The report makes mention of only a few specific news rack locations, like in front of the Harley-Davidson Cafe and near the escalators at Harmon Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

News rack owners say they were shocked in March when the county unveiled an ordinance entirely banning news racks from the Strip. Until then, Munoz and Gentile said they thought the preferred course of action was to simply replace existing news racks with new, uniform boxes that would be owned and maintained by the county and leased to operators.

Munoz, who spends three to four hours each night cleaning and maintaining his news racks, said he and other operators are willing to repaint or even replace their boxes to a standardized appearance if it means keeping them on the Strip.

Gentile argues in a sea of mobile billboards with scantily clad women and handbillers, her news racks are among the least intrusive forms of advertising on the Strip. She worries if news racks are banned, it could lead to an increase in handbillers as advertisers seek other ways to get out their messages.

Map of The Strip

The Strip

Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas

“I know the adult advertisements are not popular with 100 percent of people. I respect that, which is why I love a news rack. Unless you go and take something out of your own volition, you’re not going to be subjected to it,” she said. “To me, handbillers and performers whose sole purpose are to get into the flow of traffic are a far greater safety concern."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which also fought for handbillers’ rights, has taken an interest in the news rack issue for its potential to diminish free speech on the Strip.

“There are clearly areas on the sidewalks where there is clutter, where there is a bottleneck because the sidewalk is narrow, where there’s legitimate concern about obstructions, not just news racks,” said Allen Lichtenstein, ACLU of Nevada’s general counsel. “But there are other areas where the sidewalk is 30 feet wide.”

Lichtenstein has been approaching commissioners with a potential compromise that would remove only news racks in identified high-congestion areas, leaving the rest.

He said he thought a court would rule against an outright ban on news racks because, despite the county’s legitimate interest in ensuring pedestrian safety, the proposed ordinance is too broad and overly restrictive.

“The remedy of getting rid of all news racks is not going to be narrowly tailored to be a reasonable fit between means and ends,” he said. “It’s going to limit too much speech.”

Commissioner Mary Beth Scow, whose district includes a portion of the Strip from Tropicana Avenue to Flamingo Road, hasn’t spoken to Lichtenstein yet about a less restrictive ordinance, but for now Scow said she’s still favoring a total ban.

“I think this is not only for present congestion but also looking toward the future,” she said.

“My feeling is we need to protect as much as we can.”

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, whose district includes the Strip south of Tropicana Avenue, sees the congestion as a safety problem.

“When I have been out there, I have seen people forced into right of way. They just can’t get by,” Sisolak said. “There are rows of people handing stuff out, news racks, a tree. And people are getting pushed into the street.”

Sisolak said he is willing to discuss a plan that would target only news racks in high-congestion areas, but he hasn’t heard any ideas yet from news rack owners.

“I’m still willing to work with everybody. I would have hoped the news rack people would have been more proactive in terms of saying, ‘We realize there’s a problem, how can we work with you,’ as opposed to, ‘We’re going to sue you.’”

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