It the not too distant past it was a common and welcome sight to see street performers performing their shtick along the Las Vegas Strip, serving as eye and ear candy for weary travelers traversing the Sin City byways in searing heat.
Now the historic forms of grass roots entertainment have largely diminished, if not totally disappeared from the Las Vegas landscape.
But the times may be changing.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against police and public officials on behalf of two Las Vegas Strip street performers after one was arrested in March.
ACLU lawyer Maggie McLetchie says the federal lawsuit was filed last Thursday on behalf of guitarist Suze Banasik and Elvis Presley impersonator Bill Jablonski to support free speech and free expression rights for street performers on the resort-lined Strip.
The 45-year-old Banasik was jailed for 12 hours on obstructing a sidewalk and operating a business without a license charges before Clark County prosecutors dropped the charges.
The ACLU has fought and won similar First Amendment battles for handbill distributors, political activists and street preachers on the Strip and at the downtown Fremont Street Experience casino mall.
“They think each new type of expression they can suppress, and we have to go to court for each of those, and the results are always the same,” Las Vegas ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein said.
The new lawsuit accuses Las Vegas police of harassing street performers, also known as buskers, on the Strip. The lawsuit names the Metropolitan Police Department, Sheriff Doug Gillespie and three other Las Vegas police officers, Clark County, District Attorney David Roger and Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto as defendants.
ACLU attorney Maggie McLetchie said her group accepted the case “because street performers have free speech rights and the right to free expression, including on the Strip.”
“Cases that were litigated have made clear that the sidewalks on the Las Vegas Strip are a public forum,” she said. “Despite this fact, we received a number of complaints from street performers that Metro was telling them they couldn’t perform.”
Banasik and Jablonski both said they entertain tourists simply for the joy of it. They consider any tips they receive a bonus.
ACLU attorneys say case law protects the performers’ activities even if they solicit money.
“Lots of cases make clear that the only thing you could really limit is aggressive panhandling,” McLetchie said.
Lichtenstein said such harassment has a “chilling effect” that keeps other performers away out of a fear that they will be cited or arrested.
“For well over a decade, there’s been this attempt to make the sidewalks up and down Las Vegas Boulevard on the Strip the private domain of the hotel-casinos and their interests,” Lichtenstein said. “And the fact that the police continue to think that it’s more important to serve those interests rather than to protect the rights of free speech on those sidewalks as ordered by federal courts is disheartening.”