ACLU Stands Up for Stand-Ups

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
October 7, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of Maryland
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Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Comedian Banned from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor


BALTIMORE–The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today filed a lawsuit on behalf of a popular street performer who was banned from the city’s Inner Harbor in October 2002 for making a joke deemed to be “”insensitive”” by Harborplace personnel.

“”This is no joke,”” said Rajeev Goyle, the ACLU attorney representing the performer, Jerry Rowan. “”By allowing speech to be banned solely because of its content, the City of Baltimore has transformed the public space of Inner Harbor into an area where only approved speech is permitted, in direct violation of the First Amendment.””

Rowan has appeared on CBS’ “”Late Night with David Letterman”” and in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He has been described as a “”Harborplace favorite”” by the Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Magazine hailed him as “”probably the most popular performer ever to wow Harborplace crowds.””

The ACLU lawsuit seeks immediate changes in the street performer program; compensatory damages for Rowan, who has been unable to earn a living since his dismissal; and a permanent injunction allowing Rowan to return to the venue where he had worked for over 20 years.

Under the program, street performers are granted permission to perform and earn tips in the Inner Harbor but are not employees of the city or Harborplace. The ACLU lawsuit contends that the program’s guidelines are unconstitutionally vague and that arbitrary enforcement of the guidelines violates the First Amendment.

In April 2002, Rowan received a warning letter alleging that he had made “”inappropriate”” comments during his act. He was not told what comments were found to be objectionable or who had complained about his performance. Six months later, Rowan received a dismissal letter telling him that he could no longer perform in the Inner Harbor because city police officers and a Harborplace manager heard Rowan make a joke they felt was offensive. No one complained to Rowan during his performance.

Rowan has been added as a plaintiff to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland in April 2003, Cunningham v. Flowers, which was brought on behalf of five women participating in a weekly vigils organized by Women in Black/Baltimore, part of Women in Black, an international network of women who hold silent vigils to protest war and promote peaceful solutions to conflict. That lawsuit, which called city regulations governing demonstrations and other free speech activities in the city’s parks unconstitutional, resulted in a temporary suspension of the city’s permit requirements for groups of 25 or fewer people. A news release about the initial lawsuit is online at /node/8930

The defendants in the case are represented by Carmen Shepard and Adam Bloom of Buc & Beardsley, and Goyle and Susan Goering of the ACLU of Maryland.

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