Pennsylvania lawmakers sued over bill that silences prisoners

Mumia Abu-Jamal (Reuters / Steven M)
A recently enacted Pennsylvania law that restricts the speech of prisoners is the subject of a lawsuit entered in United States District Court this week by a group that includes journalists, media outlets, academics and former inmates.

The complaint, filed on Wednesday within the Middle District of Pennsylvania, accuses officials in the Keystone State of violating the First Amendment-protected rights of prisoners after Gov.Tom Corbett, a Republican,signed the “Revictimization Relief Act” last October, effectively silencing inmates at institutions from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

As RT reported at the time, the bill, passed by the governor within days of it being introduced, allows inmates to be sued for speaking behind bars in a manner that may cause mental anguish upon any alleged victims or otherwise “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime.” The bill’s co-author, Republican State Rep. Mike Vereb, pushed the act through the legislature after learning that convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal had been asked to give a pre-recorded commencement speech to a group of 21 graduating students at Goddard College, his alma matter.

READ MORE: ‘Mumia Bill’ signed in Pennsylvania lets prisoners be sued over speech

Corbett, whose term as governor expires later this month, said when he signed the bill that it was a means “to keep the murdered Mumia Abu-Jamal silent,” singling out the acclaimed activist cum journalist currently serving life in prison for the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Fulkner in 1981. Abu-Jamal, 60, has maintained his innocence during the last three-plus decades.

Vereb 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,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues, urging for them to approve the act.

The “Silencing Act,” as it’s called in Wednesday’s complaint, stands to keep quiet more than just Abu-Jamal, however. Attorneys for the 11 entities listed in the suit as co-plaintiffs allege that the law “permits court 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 crimes on the victim’ (not otherwise defined).” It names the Pennsylvania and Philly, PA district attorneys as defendants.

“Now that the Silencing Act has taken effect, the prospect of its enforcement—and the injunctive and monetary relief that the law authorizes—looms for thousands of implicated individuals and organizations,” the plaintiffs write.

According to the complaint, the “Silencing Act” is doesn’t pass constitutional muster on at least four specific fronts; attorneys for the plaintiffs allege the law is too vague, unlawfully regulates speech based on content, is unconstitutionally overboard and affords the court to impose a prior restraint on speech.

Plaintiffs named in the suit include the Philadelphia City Paper, as well as Prison Legal News – a project of the non-profit Human Rights Defense Center, largely written by current and former inmates – area journalists and academics.

“The primary role of a journalist is to inform the public about what the government, including the courts and prisons, is doing in its name. Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable,” said Christopher Moraff, a criminal justice reporter named as a plaintiff, according to Kenneth Lipp at The Declaration.

“By threatening to silence a critical source of information, this law not only threatens my ability to do my job, but to my mind undermines the very ideal of a free press,” Moraff said.

Reached by PennLive this week, the bill’s main proponent, Rep. Vereb, said: "Our lawyers and I feel confident with the work we did on this.” Attorneys for the Human Rights Defense Center and American Civil Liberties Union aren’t convinced, however, and want the District Court to declare the law unconstitutional and enter a judgment and injunctive relief on behalf of the plaintiffs.