Luke Ravenstahl: First Amendment Advocate

| October 15, 2009

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."

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

I see from your article on Mayor Luke's f-bomb at the Oct. 1 performance of "Off the Record IX: High School Confidential," that "producer Chris Rawson did not respond to a request for comment." That would probably be because I never received that request. But what's to comment? "Off the Record" makes fun of the newsmakers and invites a few of them to make fun of us in return. We say what we want and so do they. As to the reporter's comment that "we weren't there," why weren't you? It's one of the best shows in town, every year! He goes on, "we're probably never going to be invited," but nobody needs to be invited: Tickets are sold every year through the Cultural Trust box office, with the proceeds going mainly to the Food Bank. There's nothing private about this great evening, which is presented by the union representing PG writers (not by the paper) and by the actors of AFTRA. So please do come next year -- the Food Bank can use the money, and everyone needs to discover that it's healthy (and fun) to laugh at ourselves, whatever the language that's used.
-- Chris Rawson, PG senior theater critic and producer, "Off the Record"

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Posted by CRawson on 10/16/2009 at 5:48 PM

Chris -

Charity is great, and as they say at Idlewild Park "You Can't Beat Fun", but why make it "Off the Record"? Isn't that encouraging an overly cozy, wink-wink-nudge-nudge relationship between the media and "newsmakers"? The White House Correspondents Dinner is a ton of fun, but it's not remotely treated as off the record.

I think our mayor took advantage of that dynamic to vent some genuinely held and pretty nasty views, without "poking fun" at anybody let alone himself. Good for you all for providing him the rope to hang himself, but I'd like to the see the pics and video. Some people think what JUST happened in Oakland, and our Mayor's views on it, are pretty damned important.

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Posted by Bram Reichbaum on 10/16/2009 at 9:24 PM

A sidebar, Chris. You say:

" "Off the Record" makes fun of the newsmakers and invites a few of them to make fun of us in return. "

I remember a year ago (or was it two?) the theme of the show was 'Blogged to Death'; the plot revolving to some extent around bloggers and the emerging blogosphere. I think the post office must have misplaced our invitations to join in the mutual fun-making arrangement.

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Posted by Bram Reichbaum on 10/16/2009 at 9:51 PM

I am really concerned that this was even reported. It doesn't seem right. It seems that the "off the record" portion was violated by the PG.

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Posted by Matt Hogue on 10/18/2009 at 2:08 AM
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