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Luke Ravenstahl: First Amendment Advocate

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It's not every day you hear about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appearing in police riot gear, taunting the head of the local American Civil Liberties Union and dropping the f-bomb in front of the city's media elite. 

And unless you were at the Oct. 1 performance of "Off the Record" at the Byham Theater, you probably haven't heard about it. Until now. 

"Off the Record" is a satire produced by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers, who organize the event as a charity fundraiser. As the name suggests, what happens onstage is not supposed to be repeated outside the performance -- although it is attended by hundreds of journalists and community figures. (Show producer Chris Rawson did not respond to a request for comment.) 

However, the P-G couldn't resist dropping a hint about what happened this time around: "We can't tell you what shocking things were said (or by whom, Mr. Ravenstahl), but the musical satire of local news and newsmakers was the best yet," the paper enthused in its Oct. 6 Seen column.

Well, we can tell you. We didn't take a vow of silence, because we weren't there. And now we're probably never going to be invited again.

"Off the Record" gives local officials rebuttal time as "guest humorists." And according to several witnesses who contacted us after the fact, Ravenstahl used his moment on stage to send a message to ACLU state legal director Vic Walczak, who has sharply criticized the city's handling of G-20 protesters. According to multiple sources, Ravenstahl said something like this: "I heard we're going to face a free-speech lawsuit. Well, I have some free speech for you -- fuck you, Vic Walczak."

The mayor's office denied nothing. 

"The mayor was pleased to be a guest humorist. He enjoyed himself," said mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven. "It raised more than $30,000 for the Food Bank" as well as money for the Pittsburgh Promise, the college scholarship fund championed by Ravenstahl and Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, the evening's other guest.

"People leave the event shocked all the time," Doven added. "The event was meant to be humorous. The mayor was making fun of himself, most of the time."

The city is facing the possibility of civil suits stemming from arrests and other police activity during the G-20. Criminal hearings involving accused protesters -- many of whom are students at Oakland universities -- are still pending. But whether anyone should be bothered by the language, Doven said, "That's up to the person."

And Walczak, who wasn't in the audience, is taking it in stride -- just as you'd expect a free-speech absolutist to do. 

"Everybody else seems to be a lot more upset about it than I am," says Walczak. "Apparently a lot of people were mortified that a politician would stand up" and swear in front of a crowd.

Which isn't to say Walczak is going to let the opportunity go to waste. The ACLU is negotiating a settlement with the city over a case in which a man was arrested for flipping the bird to a city officer. A federal judge ruled the arrest was mere retaliation; the settlement talks involve new police training procedures.

Will references to Ravenstahl's f-bomb appear in future pleadings? "When the settlement of our middle-finger case happens," Walczak says, "don't worry, we've already thought of a way to bring it out."

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