Free speech on Fremont

A federal appeals court’s ruling last week upholds free speech at a downtown pedestrian mall in Las Vegas and has implications for parks, bus stations and plazas in Reno and across the nation.

“This is a sweeping victory,” said Richard Siegel, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “What hasn’t been won will be won as we go back [to the courts] to give us the rest of the issues we were arguing for.”

At stake is whether the city of Las Vegas and owners of the Fremont Street Experience, a canopied, traffic-free mall area, can ban people from passing out leaflets, collecting signatures on petitions and holding demonstrations there. Las Vegas turned Fremont Street over to a for-profit group of Vegas casino owners in 1995.

The ACLU of Nevada filed a lawsuit against Las Vegas in 1997, after a policy was adopted to oust protesters and people passing out handbills on Fremont Street.

The unanimous ruling July 2 in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned part of a 2001 decision by U.S. District Judge David W. Hagen. Hagen had ruled that the city couldn’t ban political “message-bearing” speech, but that it could prohibit leaflet distribution by people asking for “goods, services, patronage or money.”

The appeals court determined that Fremont Street, though privately held, is a public forum. Its panel of judges ordered the lower court to reconsider whether the ban on all solicitation jibes with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble peacefully.

The ACLU of Nevada is confident that no blanket ban on speech can be upheld.

“We feel it’s a very broad win for free expression,” Siegel said, crediting the years of legal wrangling on the part of ACLU of Nevada attorney Allen Lichtenstein. “It may be the most significant constitutional victory that the ACLU has ever won in Nevada, with the exception of the abortion notification case 15 years ago.”

The ruling could clarify a dispute over what kinds of activities can be banned at Reno Citifare bus stations. About a year ago, members of a Reno activist group recruiting and registering voters were asked to leave the downtown Reno bus station, which was being picketed at the time by striking bus drivers.

The Regional Transportation Commission said at the time that it decided what groups would or would not be allowed to solicit its patrons on a case-by-case basis. The RTC has viewed its bus stations as private areas. The Fremont Street ruling could easily be cited in this case to say that a bus station is public space.

"This has implications for demonstrations at the bus station in Reno, implications for every … public meeting place," Siegel said. "I’m tempted to say it semi-revolutionizes the law, but at least it greatly clarifies it."