Comedian's wisecracks no cause for censorship

October 09, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

I'M GLAD the American Civil Liberties Union is taking up for the comic-juggler Jerry Rowan. Remind me to send these people some money. I want to remain a card-carrying member of any organization that stands up for a standup comic's right to balance a bicycle on his nose and tell jokes in the town square - in this case, the Inner Harbor - even if someone in the crowd takes offense.

This is Baltimore, not Beijing.

This is the land of the free, where the first lady of Maryland can announce she'd like to shoot Britney Spears -- and not even apologize!

This is a great country!

Rush Limbaugh is an overrated talk-show host because the media in this country have been very desirous that a middle-aged white blowhard do well.

There, I said it!

Vive la liberte! (That's French. I used it just then to annoy the French-haters out there. Pretty funny, huh?)

But what we have here in Rowan vs. City of Baltimore is a comic being deprived of a livelihood -- and a public deprived of his humor -- because of some arbitrary judgment that a couple of jokes he delivered during his juggling act a year ago near the Rouse Co.'s Harborplace were offensive to persons unknown.

As one of the most popular performers at the Inner Harbor over the past two decades, Rowan, a New York wise guy and graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, has told a million jokes while pedaling a unicycle and juggling flaming torches in the amphitheater between the Light and Pratt street pavilions. He has a very strong act, with lots of clever improv. He is blessed with great timing and the instincts for working a crowd into big laughs.

The jokes that got him into trouble with the Rouse Co. last October were more wisecracks than anything else -- the kind of thing you might get from sarcastic deejays on FM rock stations during morning drive time -- and they had to do with the sniper shootings in the Washington suburbs.

Now, a string of random killings might not have been a wise choice as subject matter for Rowan, but he has frequently spiced his act with a little edge and some topical references. That kind of comedy always generates complaints, and the Rouse Co. got some. But Rowan remained in place as the top act in the amphitheater.

Then, last October, he made some cracks about the snipings.

"I was driving downtown this morning," Rowan said, "and on the radio I heard that they've finally come out with a composite of the sniper, so there should be an arrest forthcoming. Apparently, he's a white guy that speaks Spanish and looks like he's Arab."

He thinks he might have then quipped: "Five thousand cops and they can't find one guy."

As I said, wisecracks, and not even that funny -- in the world of contemporary live comedy, tame stuff. Rowan can't remember the crowd booing or grumbling about these remarks. What he heard was laughter.

But apparently some city police officers took offense and complained to Harborplace management. A short time later, the Rouse Co. removed Rowan from the list of approved street performers. He hasn't worked at Harborplace, his bread-and-butter venue, since.

Harborplace was built on city parkland. The amphitheater is a public space. But the Rouse Co. generally controls what happens there -- as if it's Disney and the amphitheater Disney World. In administering the street-performer program, it holds public auditions -- for several years with its once-top performer, Jerry Rowan, as emcee -- and apparently has considerable authority over who gets to sing for their supper. (The performers are not paid, and work for tips.)

Rowan made plenty of tips but, more than that, his performances at Harborplace generated other jobs, including many corporate parties, at $1,000 a pop. All that has dried up in the year since he was blacklisted.

"I'm sitting here reading Inside Lacrosse magazine," Rowan said yesterday.

Rowan's wife is a physical therapist. He's a stay-at-home dad with two little kids, and he doesn't have much time during the week to promote himself or run out for jobs, even if he got them. The fabulous, good-weather weekends at Harborplace generated most of his annual income as a street performer, $20,000 to $30,000.

The hardship on Rowan might not be our concern.

But every fan of free speech should be outraged that, based on a couple of complaints, some fraidy-cat with a degree in marketing can ban the likes of Jerry Rowan from a public place.

"By allowing speech to be banned solely because of its content," said Rajeev Goyle, the ACLU attorney representing Rowan, "the city of Baltimore has transformed the Inner Harbor, a large public gathering place that is Baltimore's main public square, into an area where only approved speech is permitted, in direct violation of the First Amendment."

The "Rousting" of this guy out of Harborplace is an outrage. I'm glad the ACLU is suing the city on Rowan's behalf.

But I'm a taxpayer of the old palatinate and I don't want to pay for a big settlement.

So let's put the man back to work -- in Harborplace, in prime time, on busy weekend afternoons -- and let him work for laughs, and for his supper.

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