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