HARRISBURG - The three weeks it took to propose, pass and sign legislation designed to prevent convicted felons from making public remarks that could cause the families of victims mental anguish have left too many unanswered questions, according to a federal lawsuit filed at the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania by several media and civil rights organizations.
The plaintiffs, led by Prison Legal News magazine, the Philadelphia City Paper and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, claim that Senate Bill 508, also known as the Revictimization Relief Act, violates the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution by robbing prisoners of their right to free speech.
The complaint names Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams as defendants.
“Laws designed to silence anyone, even people society may find disagreeable, are unconstitutional and bad for democracy. This law reaches broadly, and could prevent innocent prisoners from seeking clemency, journalists from using sources to expose prison abuse, and formerly incarcerated persons from speaking publicly,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
The legislation, referred to in the complaint as the Silencing Act, was fast-tracked by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last fall in response to convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal’s recording of a commencement speech for the fall graduates of Goddard College in Vermont, where Abu-Jamal received a Bachelor’s Degree while on death row.
Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner. Over the years, his incarceration became a cause celebre for activists who argue that he was given an unfair trial based on faulty evidence. In 2011, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
Supporters of Daniel Faulkner’s surviving wife and family have maintained that Abu-Jamal’s continued publishing and speech-making have repeatedly caused them harm by forcing them to relive Faulkner’s tragic death and forced them into the public limelight.
One day after Abu-Jamal’s remarks, recorded via telephone by Prison Radio, were played for the Goddard College graduates, state lawmakers held a press conference announcing the bill, which allows lawmakers to enact an injunction against convicted prisoners from performing actions that would cause victims mental anguish. The general assembly passed the bill weeks later, with Corbett signing it into law surrounded by Maureen Faulkner and Philadelphia police officers during a special ceremony at the site of Daniel Faulkner’s murder.
The problem with the legislation, according to this week's filing and another suit filed by Abu-Jamal in November, is that the language is too broad and creates a chilling effect on any speech from prisoners.
"The act's impact extends far beyond just Abu-Jamal," the complaint says. "In fact, the Silencing Act permits courts to enjoin and penalize any speech or other conduct by an 'offender' that causes 'mental anguish' to a personal injury crime 'victim' or otherwise 'perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.'"
For example, according to the claim, Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine published by the Human Rights Defense Center, relies on writings from inmates for 95 percent of its content, including Abu-Jamal. The complaint says the publication fears it will face an injunction or penalty for printing the articles, which allegedly do not address the crimes for which they are serving their sentences.
“This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what behavior is prohibited,” Shuford said. “Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause ‘mental anguish’ could be banned by a judge.”
The complaint has been filed by Amy Gilensky of the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton.
The federal case ID is 1:15-cv-00045-CCC.