No laughing matter

October 15, 2003|By Ronald K. L. Collins

HUMOR IS in the ear of the beholder. What amuses some, riles others. As it should be.

For once humor loses its ability to prick us -- to make us feel uneasy or uncomfortable -- it loses its cultural value. From the time of Aristophanes (the comic poet who mocked his nation's war efforts) to that of Margaret Cho (a contemporary comedian with a raunchy dislike of bigots), one of the high purposes of comedy has been to make us step outside of ourselves so that we may look at life anew.

Incredibly, not even mild forms of such comedy have a place in Baltimore's Inner Harbor because they offend officials with eggshell sensibilities. But a lawsuit filed last week may (and should) change that and thereby liberate performers from such hypersensitive censors.

A year ago, when Marylanders and others were terrorized by demented snipers, Jerry Rowan, a highly popular local street performer, made a wisecrack about the matter before folks gathered at the Inner Harbor.

"I heard they've finally come out with a composite of the sniper. ... Apparently," he continued, "he's a white guy that speaks Spanish and looks like he's Arab."

These "politically incorrect" remarks, as they were later tagged, drew the attention of some nearby police officers who objected to what they heard. Why such First Amendment-protected speech should be of any moment to anyone in uniform is a curious and dangerous thing in itself. Nonetheless, things escalated once the officers complained to the Harborplace managers, the people who help oversee the street performers program.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Rowan, who has performed at the Inner Harbor since 1981, was told that he could not perform in the street performers program, that he could never again speak or perform for Inner Harbor audiences.

In the words of the Harborplace managers, this speech in a public square was squelched because it purportedly "contained very insensitive, inappropriate comments." That assessment is certainly questionable, especially since Mr. Rowan has performed successfully for thousands of family friendly audiences.

Even so, if such arbitrary practices are to be the free speech measure, then forget about public readings of everything from Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Allen Ginsberg's famous poem Howl to David Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars. Forget as well comedic social commentary from the likes of Bill Maher or folk music with a slight edge such as that found in John Eddie's songs. Forget a variety of street theater, too.

Justice William O. Douglas had it right in 1949: "A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea."

That is the American way. That is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment. Arbitrary rules of speech premised on what is purportedly "insensitive" or "inappropriate" have little if any place in the codes of conduct that govern a free people, especially in the public square.

If freedom is the touchstone, then it is salutary that the American Civil Liberties Union has come to Mr. Rowan's defense by way of a federal lawsuit against the city of Baltimore. Apparently, local officials were not convinced that the First Amendment plainly forbids such censorship. When those entrusted with enforcing the law -- the Constitution -- breach it, there is little recourse but to turn to judges to safeguard the liberty guaranteed to all Americans.

City officials should not wait to have a federal judge order them to do what they should have done long ago -- namely, honor the First Amendment. They should revise their rules and guidelines so as to encourage robust expression at the Inner Harbor. And they should let Jerry Rowan speak his mind openly and freely, if only to provide a safe harbor for American freedom.

Ronald K. L. Collins is a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

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