A federal judge has ruled that a Pennsylvania law passed to silence prisoners, like Mumia Abu-Jamal, who speak about mass incarceration and other criminal justice issues from jail violates freedom of speech and due process rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution. A permanent injunction against the law was issued and the attorney general is likely to appeal.
In October, the “Revictimization Relief Act” was introduced by Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Mike Vereb after Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer 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 eleven in the state’s Senate voted against it. It was signed into law by then-Governor Tom Corbett less than three weeks later.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, on behalf of a group of journalists, publications, advocacy organizations and other individuals formerly jailed for crimes committed in Pennsylvania, sued in January.
Judge Christopher Conner concluded [PDF] the law “betrays several constitutional requirements.” The law’s enactment was “unlawfully purposed, vaguely executed and patently overbroad in scope.”
Even if there were good intentions behind seeking to prohibit “expressive conduct” by violent criminals because it may cause “mental anguish to victims or their families,” the fact that these individuals were convicted of “infamous or violent crimes” is “largely irrelevant” to the First Amendment,” according to the judge.
“A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender’s constitutional right to free expression,” Conner stated. “The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate, and its enduring guarantee of freedom of speech subsumes the right to expressive conduct that some may find offensive.”
An attorney for Abu-Jamal, Bret Grote, told The Philly Inquirer, “Before his law was enacted, I was determined to work with Mumia and others in prison to bring a case that would wipe it off the books as soon as possible. And we’re pleased that day has come.”
While the law had only been in place for months, it was already having a significant “chilling effect”:
…Nonparty Free Speech Radio News ceased widely publishing Abu-Jamal’s weekly commentarieson the radio. Shakaboona Marshall shelved publication of his book, a memoir of his experiences as a juvenile serving life in prison without parole. Anthony Chance will publish under a pseudonym, in an effort to avoid the Act’s scope. Prison Radio, [Human Rights Coalition], and [Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal] have continued their work without incident, but at least one member of EMAJ was delayed in presenting Abu-Jamal to his class pending review of the Act by seminary counsel. [Prison Legal News] withheld publication of an article authored by Abu-Jamal, and [Pennsylvania Prison Society] published a warning in its “Graterfriends” newsletter admonishing potential authors of the new risk attendant to prisoner publications…
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania displayed tremendous contempt for the First Amendment with the passage of this law.
As the judge explained, “The ‘high purpose’ of the foremost amendment is perhaps best displayed through its protection of
speech that some find reprehensible.” Speech which “induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger,” is exactly the kind of speech the First Amendment is supposed to protect.
The law scarcely defined who should be considered an “offender.” The state’s attorney general admitted a pretrial detainee, someone who had not even been found guilty of a crime yet, could be accused of violating the law. That would mean someone claiming they were innocent prior to being found guilty would have to fear prosecution, even if they were found not guilty of the crime they claimed to have not committed.
Also, according to the judge, the way the state sought to apply the law included “pardon applications, clemency petitions and any testimony given in connection with those filings. It extended to “public expressions of innocence, confessions or apologies.” It encompassed “legislative testimony in support of improved prison conditions and reformed juvenile justice systems.” Plus, the state aimed to prevent any “public speech or written work whatsoever, regardless of the speaker’s intention or the work’s relation to the offense.”
Conner made it clear that victims are not “without remedies” if they do not like it when convicted criminals exercise their rights to freedom of speech. They can protest that speech through “demonstrations, picketing, or public debate. They may publish responsive leaflets and editorials.”
The political prisoner, who inspired lawmakers in Pennsylvania to implement this unconstitutional law, should not be ignored. It was but one more act the state has launched to specifically squelch resistance from Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal spent 29 years on death row before his death sentence was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 2011. He has demanded a new trial and garnered the support of heads of state in South Africa, Nobel laureates, members of European parliament, and lawmakers from city governments in Detroit and San Francisco. Scholars, religious leaders, artists, educators and members of the Congressional Black Caucus have spoken out against his trial and how evidence of his innocence has gone ignored.
The vendetta by state officials, which is undertaken on behalf of groups like the Fraternal Order of Police, recently extended to depriving Abu-Jamal of medical care.
March 30th, Mumia lost consciousness and was moved from SCI Mahanoy to the ICU unit at Schuylkill Medical Center. His blood sugar count was at 779: he was in diabetic shock. His sodium level was 160. Since January, Mumia has received inadequate and detrimental treatment for a severe case of eczema. His life threatening medical crisis continues and has now been labeled late-onset diabetes, which should have been identified and treated months ago.
His friends and supporters say he still is in “grave condition” and family and his lawyer are being denied the right to visit him. Abu-Jamal is also not allowed to have access to an outside doctor. So, supporters are raising money to fund a legal battle to win Abu-Jamal the medical care he needs.
The state could very well kill Abu-Jamal by refusing to allow him treatment. However, nobody in government will care if that happens. These are the same people who pushed a horribly conceived law that did not even remotely pretend to respect the First Amemdment in order further isolate Abu-Jamal from the world. And, if Abu-Jamal dies in prison, Pennsylvania lawmakers will likely celebrate.