First Amendment lawsuit against the city expanded


At first blush, there would seem to be slim common ground between a group of women peace activists dispersed from a city park in April and a street performer dismissed last year after entertaining crowds at the Inner Harbor for two decades.

But yesterday, the group, Women in Black, and the comic, Jerry Rowan, joined forces in an amended free-speech lawsuit against the city of Baltimore.

"They were both silenced because the city has declared the Inner Harbor a no free-speech zone," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Rajeev Goyle said after a news conference at the Inner Harbor amphitheater to announce amending Rowan's complaint to the peace protesters' earlier lawsuit.

"We looked at this from the perspective that the free-speech problems associated with the Women in Black vigils extended to artistic expression," Goyle added.

A joke playing off the sniper investigation in October last year precipitated Rowan's dismissal as an Inner Harbor street performer. When he told the joke, Rowan was so delighted by the crowd's response that he told it again the next day. Passing police officers weren't amused and complained to employees at Harborplace and the Gallery, an affiliate of the Rouse Co. that owns the waterfront development at Light and Pratt streets.

Within the week, the comic whose improvisational talents won him a slot on the Stupid Human Tricks segment of Late Night with David Letterman and whose skills prompted Baltimore magazine to dub him the "best comedy juggler" of 1989, was told he was no longer welcome as a performer at the Inner Harbor.

Though Rouse effectively runs the street performer program, its entertainers perform on city-owned land.

Bob Rubenkonig, communications director for the Rouse Co., said he could not comment on Rowan's dismissal, the lawsuit or the street performer program "because of pending litigation."

Goyle, who filed the court documents electronically last night, said the only defendant named in the lawsuit is the city of Baltimore.

Rowan, 39, wore a strip of black electrical tape over his mouth yesterday to symbolize his silencing, but he had a lot to say about losing the only steady job he has ever known.

"I used to do about six or seven shows a month at the amphitheater in good weather," Rowan said. The father of two young daughters worked exclusively for tips, but the regular exposure generated paying gigs, which have been in short supply since his dismissal.

Seven months ago, members of the Baltimore chapter of Women in Black, an international organization whose members conduct silent vigils to protest war and violence, stood at McKeldin Square, the concrete and water park across from the Inner Harbor. They began the weekly protests after the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

On April 4, a Baltimore police officer citing a city ordinance ordered the women to disband because they lacked a permit to demonstrate at the harbor.

The ACLU filed suit against the city Department of Recreation and Parks and reached a temporary settlement, Goyle said.

"There was a consent decree that suspended the unconstitutional parts of the permit scheme, so that 25 or less could demonstrate without a permit," Goyle said.

Previously, any group required a permit.

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