‘Mumia Bill’ signed in Pennsylvania lets prisoners be sued over speech
Prisoners serving time in the state of Pennsylvania can now be sued for speaking up from behind bars after Governor Tom Corbett signed into law this week the Revictimization Relief Act that legislatures rushed to approve only days earlier.
The bill, signed on Tuesday by Corbett, a Republican, allows victims of “a personal injury crime” to sue the perpetrator if that offender “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.”
State Rep. Mike Vereb, a Republican and a co-author of the act, announced earlier this month that he’d be rallying lawmakers to support the bill after former death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal was allowed to record a commencement speech that was played for graduates of Goddard College during an October 5 ceremony.
Abu-Jamal, 60, is currently serving a life sentence at a prison facility in Frackville, PA for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia cop, Officer Daniel Fulkner, but he has maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration, including three decades spent awaiting execution before prosecutors agreed in 2011 to drop the death penalty. Prior to the start of his prison sentence, Abu-Jamal was considered a renowned activist and journalist, and has since published several books and thousands of essays from behind bars.
“The nation is in deep trouble, largely because old thinking, both domestically and globally, has led us into the morass that the nation now faces, which may be encapsulated by references to place-names that ring in our minds: Gaza; Ferguson; and Iraq—again!” a group of 21 graduating students from Goddard, Abu-Jamal’s alma matter, were told in the tape-recorded commencement speech. “These are some of the challenges that abide in the world, which it will be your destiny to try and analyze and resolve. As students of Goddard, you know that those challenges are not easy, but they must be faced and addressed.”
Vereb sent a letter to his colleagues in the Pennsylvania House three days before that address was given, writing in it that he was “utterly outraged that such a reprehensible person would be able to revictimize Officer Daniel Faulkner’s family with this kind of self-promoting behavior.”
The Pennsylvania legislature unanimously approved Vereb’s bill days after the address was given, and Gov. Corbett signed the act on Tuesday, 11 days after the Goddard speech, from a makeshift stage erected in Philadelphia only a few feet from the location where Faulkner was gunned down during a traffic stop 33 years ago. Nevertheless, the Washington Post reported that Corbett said in a statement that the law “is not about any one single criminal,” but rather “was inspired by the excesses and pious hypocrisy of one particular killer.”
“Maureen Faulkner, Danny’s wife, has been taunted by the obscene celebrity that her husband’s killer has orchestrated from behind bars,” Corbett said at the signing, according to a CBS News affiliate.
“This unrepentant cop killer has tested the limits of decency,” the Washington Times quoted Corbett as saying as protesters jeered nearby. “Gullible activists and celebrities have continued to feed this killer’s ego.”
Free speech advocates see no issue with Abu-Jamal’s communique from confinement, though, and say that the law signed this week is a serious blow to First Amendment protections.
“This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what is prohibited,” Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Pennsylvania office, said in a statement offered to Reuters. "That can't pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment."
Samantha Kolber, a spokesperson for Goddard, told the Patriot-News that the school was “surprised” by Corbett’s signing and said Vereb’s bill “is suggesting that people are not capable of making choices about what speech they will listen to and how they will react to that speech.”
Speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer, protester Johanna Fernandez said during Corbett’s public signing this week that the governor’s decision to speedily make Vereb’s bill a law was a “Hail Mary pass” from his administration only a month before Election Day since polls suggest that Corbett may lose the governor's seat. "The establishment of Philadelphia is using Mumia's case to silence all prisoners in the state," Fernandez said. "What they're doing is, they're essentially inflecting collective punishment on all prisoners in order to silence Mumia."
On Monday, Abu-Jamal himself weighed in on the debate and the politics surrounding Corbett’s decision to speedily sign the bill during an interview with Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio Project.
“This is a political stunt by a failing politician who is seeking support by using fear,” Abu-Jamal said this week. “Politicians do it all the time. But this is unconstitutional: Tom’s latest attempt to stroke and build up his political campaign, his failing political campaign."
According to the activist-turned-inmate, he gave his address to Goddard after students there wrote and requested he speak. Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Morehouse College, tweeted Wednesday that “Even if you don’t support Mumia, you should be outraged at this attack on First Amendment Rights.”
Even if you don't support Mumia, you should be outraged at this attack on First Amendment Rights.
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) October 22, 2014