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Las Vegas' Quest to Clean Up X-Rated Litter Runs Afoul of...the First Amendment?

Las Vegas officials have passed a litter ordinance requiring handbillers to pick up after tourists who drop their materials. The American Civil Liberties Union says the new ordinance might violate free speech protections. (AP)

Las Vegas litter

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Some tourists try to dissuade them by directing icy glares their way. Others stare, zombie-like, into the Las Vegas Strip's ubiquitous video screens and light displays in an effort to ignore the pushy handbill distributors.

But some tourists accept the pamphlets and glossy cards that advertise all-but-nude exotic dancers. Then, more often than not, they toss the material in the trash. Or if a trash can isn't nearby, onto the sidewalk — creating an endless X-rated litter problem that Las Vegas officials are now trying to clean up.

A new ordinance requires handbillers to pick up litter within a 25-foot radius on the sidewalk. But there's a hitch: The law might run afoul of the First Amendment.

"If someone takes some material, regardless of what it is, and then walks down the street and decides to drop it, that's the person who is littering. That's the person that is responsible, not the person who gave it to them originally," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union.

Las Vegas police aren't enforcing the ordinance yet. The ACLU has been meeting regularly with the exotic dancer businesses and police to talk about how that will happen, as well as encourage handbillers to help keep the Strip clean. The group has not yet challenged the law in court.

Last Vegas litter

Meanwhile, handbillers — they're also called "card-slappers" for the noise they make to get people's attention — are as in-your-face as ever.

"They're totally annoying," John Marquez, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, said on a recent evening. "I pretty much take them and toss them in the first garbage can I see."

One card he'd just grabbed near the Monte Carlo advertised a nearly nude woman named "Giesele" and a "$35 Special" but offered no other details on what the deal involved.

The legions of handbillers on the Strip on any given day include about 25 who work the Strip for Hillsboro Entertainment. They hand out some 50,000 handbills a week, according to the company's owner, Vincent Bartello.

Sure, he could probably get the law overturned, he said. He doesn't want to.

Las Vegas litter

"We're not actually littering. It's the tourists, the people who come here. But if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be here. And I want to be able to make something better for them," Bartello said.

Hillsboro Entertainment always has picked up after itself, he added. And his dancers absolutely are not prostitutes.

"We do not condone that. We send out dancers, entertainers, to entertain for customers that call," he said.

Prostitution is legal in most of rural Nevada but illegal in metropolitan areas like Las Vegas and Reno. Still, the sex trade flourishes in Sin City.

Las Vegas tried directly to prohibit handbilling in 1997. The ACLU intervened in court and won. Subsequent court rulings have established that sidewalks along the Strip are public thoroughfares where the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, Lichtenstein said.

Lately, rather than keep going after the handbillers, Clark County has been focused on a clean-up-the-Strip effort that also will examine where to put trash cans and whether handbillers are impeding pedestrian flow in some areas.

"People are having to wade their way through some of that stuff," Clark County Manager Don Burnette said.

To Lichtenstein, how police will enforce a law that requires handbillers to clean up their area no less than every 15 minutes is an obvious problem.

"I'm not sure the police even understand what they're supposed to be enforcing," he said. "Depending on what happens, we may be back in court again."

Police Capt. Todd Fasulo said the law is straightforward and, as with any crime, enforcement will be a matter of police priorities.

At least one visitor was more concerned about the use of so much paper than the sultry images being thrust at her husband.

"It's a waste of trees," said John Marquez's wife, Kaye. "There's got to be a better way to do advertising."

Or how about recycling? Last time they were in Vegas, they collected dozens of exotic dancer cards and stuffed them into birthday gift bags for friends back home.

"They thought it was hilarious," she said.

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