Let Freedom Ring – Except in Vegas

Linda Ronstadt created quite a ruckus in mid-July at the Aladdin. Toward the end of her performance, she dedicated a song to Michael Moore and a good portion of the crowd went bonkers, booing, storming out of the theater, defacing her posters in the lobby and demanding their money back. Aladdin execs, fuming over Ronstadt's subtle nod to the maker of the controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, promptly booted her from the hotel and said she wasn't welcome back.

Ooh, baby, baby, good for Linda Ronstadt. And too bad for Las Vegas.

Interesting how Las Vegas markets itself to the world as being all about freedom, yet a well-known performer with 30 years of experience is treated like a common criminal for expressing a political viewpoint on stage. Freedom apparently extends only as far as the patience of a casino's preferred patrons (who presumably were pardoned for acting like animals by defacing casino property as they raged through the lobby).

Make no mistake, it was Ronstadt's particular point of view that got her in trouble with casino bosses. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his far-right chorus consider opposition to the Iraq war a treasonous stance. If Ronstadt had stood on the Aladdin stage and expressed support for apple pie, Chevrolet and George W. Bush, the casino probably would have run her a hot bubble bath in her suite rather than ordering security to escort her from the premises. Country star Toby Keith is undoubtedly treated like royalty when he comes to town and regurgitates the neocon line.

Protest is a perilous business. No matter how much lip service we Americans give to freedom of speech, only a minority actually embraces the concept. People want to decide where and when free speech is appropriate. In time of war, we are told that we must not "question the president" and we must "support the troops" unconditionally. Talk of war and peace must be avoided at certain events. Aladdin President Bill Timmins decided that a concert was not a "correct forum" for a political statement.

It's all a bunch of lily-livered hoo-ha. Freedom means what the dictionary says it means, and we Americans who shout about freedom ad nauseam need to get reacquainted with the definition. We apparently have things too easy in this modern world if we want to add a bunch of "ifs" and "buts" to the First Amendment.

Political debate is a founding principle of the nation. All human interaction is political, from workers in an office to neighbors on a street to nations in conflict. Try as we might to engross ourselves in mindless pleasures and innocuous pursuits, it is impossible to avoid at least some contact with political affairs. This is particularly true during a war and during a presidential election year, when the stakes are high and greater numbers of people are animated about the public process.

Let's be clear: Just as Linda Ronstadt exercised her right to protest the war, audience members exercised their rights by booing and walking out. And the Aladdin was within its rights to send the singer packing. It's private property and the managers are entitled to decide who gets to stay there.

But the whole episode stinks in a less legalistic sense. First of all, it's not unusual for musical performers to voice political opinions, whether in their lyrics or between songs. Ronstadt is well known to be politically active and had made this dedication at all her tour stops before Vegas. And it goes both ways. There are anti-war, anti-Bush performers and there are pro-war, pro-Bush performers. The American way is to understand that both are entitled to express their opinions and that we are obligated to be reasonably tolerant of differing viewpoints.

The spirit of free speech was not honored Saturday night at the Aladdin. Ronstadt was punished for her views and humiliated by the very people who invited her to perform there. The city merely confirmed her previously espoused suspicions about Las Vegas.

It's an automatic, by the way, that the Aladdin "policy" on expressing political views will be tested by other performers booked there and at other Strip venues. The Ronstadt story burned up the national news wires this week, so everybody knows how she was treated. It could be interesting when Elton John returns to Caesars next month. In the past he has not been reticent in his criticisms of the president. Will Caesars, which has been tolerant of John's rants in the past, continue to give him free rein? Let's hope so.

Las Vegas aspires to be a beacon of freedom. All the ads say this is the place where people can shed their inhibitions, shuck their guilt, drink up and let the good times roll. Unless, of course, you have an opinion about something more salient than who's going to win the ball game.

A suggestion: The Hard Rock ought to invite Ronstadt back next week to perform a rousing hour of classic protest songs. She's guaranteed to pack the Joint. And the Hard Rock, known for flipping the bird to Nevada's old-school regulators, could do a little something to redeem the city's freedom-loving image.

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