[Pnews] Mumia Abu Jamal - Law an attack on free speech

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 4 10:53:02 EST 2015

  Law an attack on free speech


Posted: Wednesday, February 4, 2015, 1:08 AM

By Carey Shenkman

Any state legislature would have a hard time dreaming up a more 
unconstitutional measure than the one outgoing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom 
Corbett recently signed into law. The so-called Revictimization Relief 
Act allows victims of personal-injury crimes to sue convicts to silence 
any speech that allegedly "perpetuates the continuing effect of the 
crime" or causes "mental anguish."

This vaguely defined gag order is a textbook violation of the First 
Amendment. Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing Philadelphia Police 
Officer Daniel Faulkner, and is now, from prison, a prolific journalist 
and author. The legislature passed the "Muzzle Mumia Law" to censor 
academic and political speech. Lawmakers rushed to pass it days after 
Abu-Jamal gave a commencement address recorded from prison at the 
invitation of his alma mater, Vermont's Goddard College. Officials aimed 
to make sure Abu-Jamal never spoke at an academic institution again, 
with one representative calling his invitation to be commencement 
speaker "despicable."

Abu-Jamal has spent more than 33 years in prison, 29 years in solitary 
confinement on death row. He has published seven books, and his numerous 
articles have appeared in many publications, including the Yale Law 
Journal. He also delivers radio commentaries produced by San 
Francisco-based Prison Radio and distributed to hundreds of stations 
across the country.

I am confident that a lawsuit challenging this statute's 
constitutionality, brought by the Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad 
Law Project, will succeed. But what is truly astonishing is that a law 
like this could pass so quickly, pushed by lawyers and lawmakers sworn 
to uphold the Constitution, without any serious legislative pushback.

The passage of the Revictimization Relief Act confirms a reality the 
public can no longer ignore: Scores of communities live daily with the 
threat of lawmakers and law enforcement taking away their right to 
speak. This new Pennsylvania law will force convicted people to face 
threats of being sued if they choose to speak, regardless of the issues 
they address.

In tougher circumstances than those presented by the case here, the U.S. 
Supreme Court has held overwhelmingly that the First Amendment protects 
speech that is "upsetting or arouses contempt." In /Snyder v. Phelps/, 
the court held 8-1 that protesters from the infamous Westboro Baptist 
Church had a First Amendment right to demonstrate at funerals for 
members of the armed services and were protected against lawsuits 
alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress.

/Phelps/ concerned intentional infliction of emotional distress, while 
the Pennsylvania law imposes strict liability, a wide standard that 
requires no intent. The law could also censor speech where the speaker 
has absolutely no desire to offend. It does not require speech to be 
actually directed at victims. Its standard is completely subjective. It 
would also ban books, as well as academic speech on matters of public 

The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police association, 
is among the most enthusiastic supporters of the law. This organization 
has waged a relentless campaign against Abu-Jamal and his supporters 
over the years to thwart their First Amendment rights in order to 
silence them.

The FOP's president has called for the public to "inflict economic 
punishment on the supporters" of Abu-Jamal. The FOP placed Amnesty 
International on a public blacklist for supporting Abu-Jamal's right to 
due process. It also bullied NPR into canceling radio commentaries it 
had commissioned from Abu-Jamal; tried to prevent HBO from broadcasting 
a special on him; and pressured Temple University to bar Abu-Jamal's 
books from classrooms and to end the campus radio station's contract 
with the Pacifica Network's /Democracy Now/, which aired work by Abu-Jamal.

A greater concern than whether courts will declare this law 
unconstitutional is the impunity with which the Fraternal Order of 
Police and lawmakers continue to operate. The speed with which this law 
was passed signals a need for action. Otherwise, what comes next? 
Censorship of articles in support of the rights of those convicted, 
articles which might cause "mental anguish"? Taking away the right to 
counsel of convicted persons because it could cause "mental anguish"? 
Prohibiting journalists from interviewing prisoners because the 
resulting stories might cause "mental anguish"?

Any first-year law student could see that Pennsylvania's statute is 
unconstitutional, but lawyers and lawmakers passed it anyway in order to 
force a whole segment of society to risk being hauled into court if what 
they speak is considered reprehensible. The way we protect against 
censorship is by defending the free-speech rights of all.

Read more at 
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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