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Journalists, Former Inmates Sue to Block Pennsylvania Law Which Could Be Used to Silence Them

Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Mike Vereb, who introduced “Silencing Act”

A group of journalists, publications, advocacy organizations and individuals who were formerly incarcerated for crimes committed in Pennsylvania are suing to block the enforcement of a state law, which they argue violates their due process and First Amendment rights because it could be used to suppress their speech.

In October, the “Revictimization Relief Act” was introduced by Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Mike Vereb after Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, expressed outrage that Abu-Jamal would be addressing Goddard College’s undergraduate graduating class as its commencement speaker. It passed unanimously in the House. Only 11 in the state’s Senate voted against it. It was signed into law by then-Governor Tom Corbett less than three weeks later.

Vereb and others who voted for the law championed the legislation as necessary to prevent victims from having to relive the trauma that they experienced, however, a complaint [PDF] filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania suggests that it gives the state extraordinary power to silence individuals and organizations they don’t want to be able to speak about issues related to prisons and criminal justice.

The ACLU maintains that the “Silencing Act” allows courts to “enjoin and penalize any speech or other conduct by an ‘offender’ (undefined) that causes ‘mental anguish’ to a personal injury crime ‘victim’ (broadly defined) or otherwise ‘perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim’ (not otherwise defined).”

The law can be applied to third parties, such as newspapers, which publish speech by anyone who has committed a “personal injury crime” in Pennsylvania. In fact, during discussion by the state’s House Judiciary Committee prior to passage, the committee’s counsel indicated the courts “would have broad power to stop a third party, who is the vessel of that conduct or speech, from delivering it or publishing that information.”

It makes it possible for the state to regulate speech based on content. Individuals and organizations have to guess whether the law covers their speech, which means there is a “chilling effect” against their freedom of expression. It imposes a “prior restraint on speech,” something which the Supreme Court has regarded as the “most serious and intolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

As such, according to the ACLU chapter, the law should be ruled unconstitutional and an injunction against enforcement should be issued.

Those suing the state’s attorney general and district attorney of Philadelphia to block enforcement include: Prison Legal News, Philadelphia City Paper, City Paper senior staff writer Daniel Denvir, Solitary Watch, freelance criminal justice journalist Christopher Moraff and University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Regina Austin.

Steven Blackburn, Wayne Jacobs, Edwin Desamour and William Cobb, who were each convicted of “personal injury crimes” in Philadelphia County, are also plaintiffs.

“Since being released from prison, they have drawn on their personal experiences with the justice system to become community leaders working to reduce crime,” the complaint describes. “Through a combination of direct service and advocacy, they and the organizations they have founded and run have striven to help at-risk youth avoid lives of crime and to help those returning from prison reintegrate into their communities and avoid recidivism. Public speaking—through presentations, lectures, panel appearances, media interviews, legislative testimony, documentaries and more—is a key component of their efforts.”

“Each of these four individuals reasonably fears that the Silencing Act will be used to enjoin or penalize such speech.”

Prison Legal News, which is a monthly magazine that regularly covers criminal justice and prison or jail-related civil litigation, features content that is typically 95% written by current or former inmates. Current and former Pennsylvania inmates have been published in the magazine before, including Abu-Jamal.

According to the complaint, “Abu Jamal recently submitted an article to PLN that PLN wants to publish, but it has not published the article due to a threat that the Silencing Act poses.”

Denvir has been publishing reports as part of an investigation into wrongful convictions of Pennsylvania inmates. The City Paper has been reluctant to publish more reports from him because they do not know if those stories will be seen as “perpetuating the continuing effect of the crime” on “victims,” as the new law prohibits.

Understandably, many victims are sensitive to reading remarks or hearing statements from criminals who traumatized them. But the law appears to be so broad as to empower just about anyone who is a relative to silence a current or former inmate who they do not want to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights.

It covers “direct victims,” a minor child who is a “material witness,” parents or legal guardians of a child who is the “direct victim and family members of homicide victims.” Family members include “anyone related to that individual within the third degree of consanguinity or affinity,” “anyone maintaining a common-law relationship with that individual” and “anyone residing in the same household with that individual.”

Even more troubling, it is not clear if “offenders” are to be convicted, incarcerated or subject simply to civil action for violating the law. Do Pennsylvania prosecutors simply plan to surprise people with charges?

What if any individuals or organizations publicize a convicted criminal’s appeal, their habeas petition or their claims of being innocent? What if they distribute a confession or apology? Does that make Pennsylvania-based media organizations which engage in freedom of the press and report on these developments “offenders”?

The law is so horrendously ludicrous that it practically encourages a federal lawsuit be brought against it, and every lawmaker who voted for this law should be publicly ridiculed for their contempt for the First Amendment.

*Photo of Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Mike Vereb a screen shot from Pennsylvania House website. 

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Journalists, Former Inmates Sue to Block Pennsylvania Law Which Could Be Used to Silence Them

Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Mike Vereb, who introduced “Silencing Act”

A group of journalists, publications, advocacy organizations and individuals who were formerly incarcerated for crimes committed in Pennsylvania are suing to block the enforcement of a state law, which they argue violates their due process and First Amendment rights because it could be used to suppress their speech.

In October, the “Revictimization Relief Act” was introduced by Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Mike Vereb after Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, expressed outrage that Abu-Jamal would be addressing Goddard College’s undergraduate graduating class as its commencement speaker. It passed unanimously in the House. Only 11 in the state’s Senate voted against it. It was signed into law by then-Governor Tom Corbett less than three weeks later.

Vereb and others who voted for the law championed the legislation as necessary to prevent victims from having to relive the trauma that they experienced, however, a complaint [PDF] filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania suggests that it gives the state extraordinary power to silence individuals and organizations they don’t want to be able to speak about issues related to prisons and criminal justice.

The ACLU maintains that the “Silencing Act” allows courts to “enjoin and penalize any speech or other conduct by an ‘offender’ (undefined) that causes ‘mental anguish’ to a personal injury crime ‘victim’ (broadly defined) or otherwise ‘perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim’ (not otherwise defined).”

The law can be applied to third parties, such as newspapers, which publish speech by anyone who has committed a “personal injury crime” in Pennsylvania. In fact, during discussion by the state’s House Judiciary Committee prior to passage, the committee’s counsel indicated the courts “would have broad power to stop a third party, who is the vessel of that conduct or speech, from delivering it or publishing that information.”

It makes it possible for the state to regulate speech based on content. Individuals and organizations have to guess whether the law covers their speech, which means there is a “chilling effect” against their freedom of expression. It imposes a “prior restraint on speech,” something which the Supreme Court has regarded as the “most serious and intolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

As such, according to the ACLU chapter, the law should be ruled unconstitutional and an injunction against enforcement should be issued.

Those suing the state’s attorney general and district attorney of Philadelphia to block enforcement include: Prison Legal News, Philadelphia City Paper, City Paper senior staff writer Daniel Denvir, Solitary Watch, freelance criminal justice journalist Christopher Moraff and University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Regina Austin.

Steven Blackburn, Wayne Jabocs, Edwin Desamour and William Cobb, who were each convicted of “personal injury crimes” in Philadelphia County, are also plaintiffs. (more…)

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Journalists, Former Inmates Sue to Block Pennsylvania Law Which Could Be Used to Silence Them

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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