Tuesday, July 17

Selling Sex: Nevada Brothels

Steve Sebelius, editor of CityLife, seems especially happy in his post on July 12, reporting that U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan made a ruling for summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs in Coyote Publishing et. al. v. Heller. He should be: CityLife has some new potential advertisers.

What is Coyote Publishing et. al. v. Heller? It is a lawsuit filed by Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada on behalf of several newspapers, that sought to void two state statutes that prohibited brothel advertising in counties where prostitution is illegal.

Right. Although some people do not know it, while the majority of the state allows legal prostitution, the two largest populated areas, Clark County (including Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City, and Laughlin), and Washoe County (including Reno and Lake Tahoe), do not have any form of legalized prostitution.

I co-wrote, with our former employee Ellen Levine, a feature on this subject for a First Amendment magazine back in 1994, when the Clark County Commission attempted to hinder legal and licensed escort services from passing out handouts because they were “a pedestrian hazard.”

Some of the arguments were sound, like those of Jim McDonald, a vice squad detective for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who said once non-prostitution escort services were licensed, they had a tendency to add services until it was often difficult to distinguish whether they crossed the line or not. Other arguments were not so sound, those made by the Clark County Commission at the time, claiming “handicapped people in wheelchairs might not be able to get by someone handing out fliers.”

To be honest, it was hard not to sympathize (a little) with police officers despite the fact that escort handouts were protected by the First Amendment. Why? Well, a lot has changed since then; but in 1994, a modest $1 million per year paid five officers to make approximately 20 arrests per night. At the time, there were only about 200 illegally working girls in Downtown Las Vegas (considered the lowest) and up to five times that amount on the Las Vegas Strip (where the girls worked casino bars), depending on what events were in town.

But for the department, they also had a daunting task because many tourists have heard that prostitution is legal in Nevada, but do not know it is illegal in Clark and Washoe counties. Risqué escort advertising only reinforced the confusion. In fact, Thalia Dondero, then a Clark County commissioner, told me that the confusion would be even worse if it wasn’t for the restrictions of brothel advertising. (Brothels in other areas of the state could not even buy a tombstone advertisement in the Yellow Pages.)

Of course, the new federal ruling changes all this, allowing brothels that are legal in neighboring counties to advertise their services in counties where prostitution is illegal. I can only imagine the confusion will increase tenfold.

Despite leaning toward being a First Amendment purest, I wonder what this ruling might mean for the rest of the nation, given there are many legal products restricted and/or barred from advertising, tobacco and alcohol included. I can’t help but wonder if Judge James Mahan’s logic means it might even be okay for Amsterdam businesses to advertise hash in the United States.

I appreciate this might sound strange coming from someone who assisted a few gaming properties in their case to loosen or remove casino advertising restrictions, but my reasoning was pretty clear then: legal casinos have a right to advertise anywhere gaming is legal. But this new ruling, which I have yet to form an opinion about, seems to suggest legal businesses have a right to advertise even where their products or services are illegal.

“But for our part, the motive wasn't financial. (We're not going to get a raise, or avoid a cut in pay, because of this lawsuit.),” says Sebelius. “The motive was philosophical: We honestly believe that telling a newspaper it cannot accept truthful advertising from a legal, licensed business is wrong. It's prior restraint, and it does violence to the First Amendment's guarantees.”

You know, I’ve always liked Sebelius. For the most part, he’s a straight shooter. But this time around, even I have to wonder when he suggests that Coyote Publishing et. al. v. Heller won’t be a boon for media outlets, billboard companies, and publications like CityLife.

“Speaking of money, some will argue that the corporate masters of CityLife pursued this litigation only to make money from brothel ads. Personally, we don't think there's a gold mine there, but certainly, making money is what corporations do,” he said.

No gold mine? In Storey County, money made from licensing brothels generates the county’s entire operational funds. In Lyon County, the licensing supports most if not all of the county’s hospital. In fact, Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlight Bunny Ranch and Bunny Ranch Two in Lyon County, has already said he will be tripling his advertising budget to go big in Reno.

Hmmm … I’m starting to think, no matter what anybody thinks of prostitution, that this First Amendment “victory” will eventually backfire, thereby allowing government to find new ways to limit free speech. Nowadays, you never know.

Digg!

4 comments:

Jericho Saved on 7/17/07, 11:31 AM said...

Oh, it's never about the money. I live in a county that did not allow alcohol sales until just a few years ago. Neighboring counties would fill our newspaper with their ads for liquor stores and bars but I guess that wasn't about money either. After people left my county to go to another county for their liquor they were usually stopped by the police as soon as they made the county line. I know that wasn't about the money.
Great article. Thanks.

Rich on 7/17/07, 11:56 AM said...

Hey JS,

Nope. It's never about the money. ;)

While I do believe Sebelius believes that telling a newspaper it cannot accept truthful advertising from a legal, licensed business is wrong ... I have a hard time believing they don't know there is a potential gold mine. When we owned a trade publication with the concierge association in Las Vegas, the association asked that we prohibit gentleman's clubs from advertising, primarily because we were helping legitimize the profession (and executives, their bosses, were subscribers).

When we told one club that we could not accept the ad, their first response was to double the already hefty price for a full page ad. Since we said, um, no, THAT obviously wasn't about money.

Anyway, I mention this because if a gentlemen's club is willing to double an ad price, I can only imagine what a brothel might consider, especially once, er, consumers, respond to the ads. It's big business (not that there is anything wrong with that, um, where it is legal).

All my best,
Rich

P.S. I didn't know there were any dry counties left, even just a few years ago. That in itself is amazing to me. :)

Jericho Saved on 7/17/07, 12:50 PM said...

I would imagine it would be an interesting discussion telling a brothel about personal branding.
Yes, our county has grown and we have nice restaurants now but, already, a group has started wanting a vote to reverse. They say they don't care how much money or employment it brings in. Excuse me but how is higher unemployment supposed to help us?

Rich on 7/17/07, 3:09 PM said...

Hey JS,

When I lived in Reno, two candidates tried to "outbid" each other by making campaign promises to halt the growth rate to 4 percent, then 3 percent, then 2 percent. Although popular at the time, it didn't work; it almost destroyed the local economy. Like most things, you cannot control it; you can only manage it.

You might suggest they consider Las Vegas' neighboring City of Henderson as a model. They've done a good job managing growth over the years. While it sounds cliche, there are measures that can be put in place to have growth pay for growth.

All my best,
Rich

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