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Monday, August 9, 2010

Las Vegas Considers Hula-Hoop Ban

Steve Friess
Steve Friess
LAS VEGAS (Aug. 8) -- This is a city where tourists are welcome to wander certain streets with open bottles of alcohol, where the phone books contain hundreds of color page ads for "escorts" and where gambling is so ubiquitous that slot machines appear in most 7-Elevens.

Yet the Las Vegas City Council is now zeroing in on halting a new public menace: Hula-Hoops.

OK, not all Hula-Hooping. Specifically, city leaders later this month may ban the use of the usually plastic, hip-gyrating equipment on a five-block pedestrian mall known as the Fremont Street Experience in the city's downtown core because, they argue, their use obstructs traffic flow and causes public disruptions.

A hula-hooper at the Fremont Street Experience on June 19, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller, Getty Images
A visitor tries out a Hula-Hoop at the Fremont Street Experience.
"Apparently there are Hula-Hoop people," said Councilman Stavros Anthony, part of a two-councilman committee that reviewed the bill this week and voted to recommend its consideration by the full board on Aug. 18. "These aren't little Hula-Hoops. They're big Hula-Hoops."

The provision is actually a minor part of an ordinance, expected to come before the council later this month, that aims to restrict a litany of activities on the plaza, a tourist attraction where light shows occur hourly on the world's largest LED screen, which doubles as the underside of a metal canopy capping the five-block stretch.

This anti-Hula-Hooping effort, however, is a new wrinkle in a 15-year battle in which the city has attempted -- and failed -- to control what occurs on the mall, which is lined by several of the city's oldest casinos. It was built in 1995 as a collaborative effort by this cluster of gaming parlors to compete for tourist interest with the mammoth, fantastical resorts springing up on the Las Vegas Strip about four miles to the south.

The ordinance, beyond containing an outright ban on Hula-Hooping as well as juggling and the use of amplified bullhorns, strives to pen into one of two 1,200-square-foot "free expression zones" those entrepreneurs and entertainers who are not authorized by the Fremont Street Experience LLC, a nonprofit entity set up by the city to operate the attraction.

Yet federal courts have ruled that the mall is a public square and have struck down every prior effort to ban protesting, panhandling, leafleting, entertaining or conducting business on the mall as infringements of First Amendment rights. The plaza was built over a road, Fremont Street, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has persuaded judge after judge that it cannot be regulated any more than activities in parks or on sidewalks can.

"The argument they use is that free speech is bad for business and we need to protect business," ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein told AOL News. "The courts have repeatedly said that while business is important, it cannot trump constitutional rights. I don't know how much clearer they can make it."

On any given night on the pedestrian mall, which is the width of about five lanes of traffic, thousands of people hopscotch from one casino to another, listen to live bands playing on three soundstages and browse numerous permanent kiosks where vendors hawk tchotchkes. In addition to those sanctioned attractions, there are artists rendering cartoon images of tourists, folks selling bottles of water, musicians strumming instruments for tips and celebrity impersonators posing for pictures.

And yes, occasionally folks will rent gigantic Hula-Hoops and perform with them, as numerous YouTube videos attest. City Attorney Brad Jerbic, who did not return a call for comment, showed the councilmen some of those as well as a clip of a Gene Simmons impersonator using a Taser on a tourist for some unexplained reason.

"We have the Fremont Street Experience that's trying to be a tourist and commercial enterprise where people are trying to have a nice commercial experience," Anthony told AOL News. "If we don't do that, anything can happen on Fremont Street, and it becomes chaos. You have to balance between free expression and order."

There were no Hula-Hoopers on the mall late Thursday, but there were several street artists and faux celebrities, including Elvis impersonator Ted Payne. He said he's made about $100 a night from tips at Fremont Street since he lost his job as a casino security guard this spring.

"They're a whole bunch of jerks," he said of the City Council, whose proposed ordinance would force him to perform in a free expression zone. "They just want to add on to the unemployment situation, I guess."

In more than an hour of interviews, AOL News failed to find a single tourist who complained about any of the Fremont Street enterprises. Most, like Drew Thompson of Greenville, S.C., laughed at the notion of a ban on Hula-Hoops and insisted that the activities the city wants to restrict are actually the reason he enjoys visiting the area.

"We love just wandering around, seeing what everybody's up to. You never know what you'll find or see," said Thompson, who was in town for his bachelor party. "I don't understand what the problem is."

Nearby business owners, however, sympathized. Michael Cornthwaite, who owns the Downtown Cocktail Room bar and the Beat coffeehouse within walking distance from Fremont Street, was torn.

"I have a strong opinion about people's personal rights and all the rest, but knowing some of the things that go on and some of the people who will set up shop and selling bottles of water, I do understand the need to keep things under control," he said.

"But," he added, "there are 50 [authorized] kiosks in the middle of the mall, and they're obstructing traffic as well. But it's a revenue steam for Fremont Street Experience and a tax stream for Las Vegas and the state. ... The traffic issue is not caused by someone with a Hula-Hoop."

Lichtenstein promised litigation if the council passes the ordinance. He said there are already laws that prohibit Hula-Hoopers -- or jugglers, another group referenced in the ordinance -- from obstructing the traffic flow. Likewise, he said, celebrity impersonators who solicit aggressively can be arrested, and vendors who don't have business licenses can be fined.

Santa Monica, Calif., has created free expression zones that have been upheld by courts, Jerbic told the councilmen. Lichtenstein countered that in Santa Monica, officials segregated all commercial enterprises to those areas and did not favor one set of entrepreneurs over others.

"This is the same old stuff in not very new packaging," Lichtenstein said. "Why they are attempting yet again to turn the pedestrian mall into their own little fiefdom outside the Constitution is a puzzlement to me."