Tuesday, May 6, 2014 | 2 a.m.
After last year’s attempt to rid the Las Vegas Strip of news racks was foiled by the First Amendment, Clark County officials are taking a new tack: If you can’t ban them, own them.
County commissioners are considering a new ordinance this month that would force private owners of the news racks to rip out their boxes. In their place, the county would install and maintain news racks of its own. The county-owned boxes would then be rented to private companies who would stock them with advertisements and magazines.
The move would allow the county to standardize the appearance and coordinate the location of news racks. The news racks, which come in weathered shades of white, red and yellow, have been criticized for their ugly appearance and for impeding foot traffic.
Commissioners have targeted the news racks as part of a broader effort to clean up Strip sidewalks. The new policy would focus on 288 racks on the Strip and would cost $300,000 to $400,000 to replace. The county plans to spend a total of $2.3 million on pedestrian improvements along the Strip this year. That includes moving obstructions — such fire hydrants, utility boxes and light poles — and improving wheelchair access.
But taking over the news racks could also put the county uncomfortably close to an industry that trades in strip club advertisements and other sexually oriented magazines and fliers.
Current news rack operators say their businesses would be negatively affected by a county takeover. Although they would be first in line to receive permits allowing them to use the new county-owned racks, they’d still be out hundreds of thousands of dollars they’ve already invested in their business, said Strip Advertising owner Eddie Munoz.
“What are we going to do with all of our news racks? That’s my life savings. They’re putting that at risk,” said Munoz, who operates 450 news racks on or near the Strip. “What they’re trying to do is make the (news racks) uniform. They already are uniform, they already meet the county code.”
Kathryn Gentile, president of Southwest Advertising, worries that new county-owned racks might be smaller than the racks she currently operates. If that’s the case, it could cut into her distribution numbers and require workers to replenish the news racks more often.
Still, county-owned news racks are likely a better alternative for the owners than the outright ban the commission considered last year. Commissioners scrapped that plan after several months of deliberation. News rack owners, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, promised a legal challenge on free speech grounds.
ACLU General Counsel Allen Lichtenstein said the county’s latest proposal to take over news racks won’t have the same free speech issues.
“The courts have said that does not create a First Amendment problem because there’s the same access for speech and for consumers to read these things,” Lichtenstein said.
The county could run into trouble if they remove too many news racks or if it discriminates based on the type of content being distributed.
“As long as it's done in a way that’s number one, fair, and number two, does not significantly reduce the amount of speech that is there,” Lichtenstein said. “What they cannot do is pick and choose who they like and who they don’t like.”
Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said the county isn’t interested in regulating what’s inside the news racks. To avoid the issue, new permits will be given out through a lottery system.
Sisolak said his concern is with the exterior appearance of the news racks and making sure they don’t get in pedestrians’ way.
“It provides consistency in the news racks. You know that they’re going to be well done because we’re doing them, instead of leaving it to some operators who might be less responsible than others,” he said.
Sisolak said he’s not concerned about any negative perception from the county doing business with distributors of sexually oriented materials.
“We’re in no way is endorsing or advocating for any product or service that’s represented (in the news racks),” he said. “My concern is that we clean up the Strip, that we make it safe for people and that we comply with the First Amendment.”