Free Speech Under Attack In Pennsylvania: New Law Bans Actions By Criminals That Might Upset Their Victims

from the blatantly-unconstitutional dept

There was a lot of fuss recently over the fact that Goddard College had Mumia Abu-Jamal give a commencement speech to 20 graduating students. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with Abu-Jamal, he’s long been a flashpoint story concerning police, race, due process and criminal penalties. The short version is that he was convicted for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death (later changed to a life sentence). There have been plenty of arguments over the years whether his trial/conviction/punishment were fair and he’s become a rallying cause for many, emblazoned on posters and t-shirts and the like. Either way, he received a correspondent’s degree from Goddard in 1996 and they invited him to give the commencement speech, recorded over the prison telephone line. Apparently, in the description of Abu-Jamal, Goddard College didn’t bother mentioning his conviction, prison terms or legal fights, but instead described him as “an award winning journalist who chronicles the human condition.”

Not surprisingly, there was a fair bit of controversy over the decision to have him give the commencement speech. Philadelphia police and the widow of the murdered police officer were especially angry about it. This was not the first time Abu-Jamal has addressed graduation ceremonies. In those cases, some students exercised their own free speech rights by protesting — walking out or turning their backs to the stage. However, for whatever reason, this latest event has resulted not in the exercising of free speech, but in a bunch of cowards in the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a ridiculous law that attacks free speech, amending the existing Crimes Victim Act, with a section for “revictimization relief” which says that if any “conduct” somehow “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish,” the victims of the original crime can seek an injunction against that conduct “or other appropriate relief.”

As Paul Levy highlights, the legislators must know that a similar bill was ruled unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment, but they seek to get out of it by saying this bill targets “conduct” rather than “speech.” Good luck with that. Either way, it doesn’t make the bill any less problematic. Under a pretty basic reading of the text, merely appealing your conviction would make you guilty of violating this act:

But even assuming that judges addressing the constitutionality of the statute are fooled by this figleaf, you have to wonder at the exceptional breadth of the statute. If a criminal defendant files an appeal from his conviction, would that cause the victim mental anguish? What if the defendant merely pleads not guilty and forces the holding of a public trial in which the victim has to testify about the facts of the crime? Can appealing, or pleading not guilty, be enjoined?

Levy further notes that while the bill’s original sponsor withdrew from the bill, the bill itself still passed (by a pretty wide margin: 37 – 11 in the state senate and unanimously in the state house). And Pennsylvania’s governor Tom Corbett is going to sign the bill despite its massive constitutional problems.

This is a total embarrassment for Pennsylvania legislators. No matter what one thinks of Abu-Jamal or the idea of having him give a commencement speech, passing a kneejerk legislation like this, designed to do nothing more than prohibit protected speech, is not just unconstitutional, but unconscionable.

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Comments on “Free Speech Under Attack In Pennsylvania: New Law Bans Actions By Criminals That Might Upset Their Victims”

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Anonymous Coward says:

with a section for “revictimization relief” which says that if any “conduct” by a convicted criminal “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish,” the victims of the original crime can seek an injunction against that conduct “or other appropriate relief.”

This is giving control of punishment to victimes, which is a bad idea.

Ninja (profile) says:

There have been plenty of arguments over the years whether his trial/conviction/punishment were fair and he’s become a rallying cause for many, emblazoned on posters and t-shirts and the like.

Where are we seeing the exact opposite now? Ferguson anyone? Except this time a cop murdered an innocent guy. Will we see the same knee jerk response? /sarcasm

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

in case you missed it, there was a both hysterical (in both senses of the word) and shaking-your-head-sad incident where a bunch of white people rioted in new hampshire or some whitebread place like that at some kind of pumpkin festival…

white trash idiots throw beers at the kops, but -since they aren’t dark and scary gangsters- they DON’T get filled with lead by the piggies…

funny that…
yet, not funny at all…

AJ says:

Re: Re: Re:

“bunch of white people rioted in new hampshire or some whitebread place like that at some kind of pumpkin festival…”

Really “whitebread”? Do people not get that bigotry on either side simple creates more bigotry? Don’t you find it a little hypocritical that your implying that these kids were treated differently because of their color, while using the term “whitebread”in doing so?

art guerrilla says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

  1. fuck you, whitebread cracker honky offay peckerwood dickless ‘tard…

    2. I am NOT the one offended by mere words, ALL THE REST OF YOU PUSSIES ARE…
    (hint: OFFENSE is taken, not given…)

    3. AND you are TOO STUPID to understand how this is EXACTLY what Empire wants you non-thinking ‘tards to do: YOU ARE DOING THE HEAVY LIFTING of establishing censorship without Empire having to lift a pinkie… once YOU IDIOTS have established that censorship is A-okay (you know, to save the chilluns), THEN they will turn it against us, thanks to you idiots paving the way… nice job, authoritarian know-nothings…

    4. IF you are unable to discern the difference between REAL bigotry, and using those ‘hate words’ (sheesh no such thing, but you idiots will pwetend it is so…) in a sarcastic -if not purposefully inciteful- manner, then why don’t you just STFU until you understand the world a little bit better…

    art guerrilla at windstream dot net

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Heh… you just gave me a deep-ish thought:

People who take offense at things others say/do should be fined for each instance of offense taken; if offense is taken as part of a commercial offering (say, in a newspaper, or for corporate visiblity), the penalty should be pumped up to being a federal offense with potential jail time.

Works for copyright offenses after all….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Its called 'election'

That might work if none of the above, or re-open nominations was an option on the ballot paper. Also people need to be convinced that voting for independent and minority party candidates is worthwhile. Even then, there are very few candidates that are not cast in the same authoritarian mold as the major party candidates. That said, when a few established politicians lose their seats, the rest are likely to pay more attention to what their electorate want, just so they can remain in power.

mcherm (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Its called 'election'

I happen to be my local “Judge of Elections” in Pennsylvania. (It’s a relatively minor position that basically means person who runs the election in one voting district.)

In Pennsylvania, each voter is permitted to enter a write-in vote for any office. So in theory your request is satisfied: voters can write in whoever they choose. But in practice, write-in candidates almost never account for any meaningful percentage of the vote. Voters simply will not choose to make the effort to do the write-in vote. I have even seen cases where a party failed (due to paperwork issues) to get a name on the ballot for a primary election. They had party members stand outside the polls handing out papers asking people to write in the name. With no one on the ballot and this sort of support, she still only managed a handful of votes (on the order of 4%).

So allowing people to cast a “protest vote” for whoever they like is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it has no real effect on elections.

Anonymous Coward says:

Exercising their free speech

This is just an example of our elected officials exercising their “free speech” in the form of voting their minds… unfortunately for them, they didn’t learn that “free speech” doesn’t also mean “free from consequences”, and I think they’re going to learn pretty quick what those consequences may be.

David says:

What happened to serving time?

If you just tell the victim that it has eternal control over everything the criminal does from now on, where is the point in having a sentence in the first place?

Also any pain the victim of a crime may feel regarding the actions of the purported perpetrator are independent of whether the focus of the victim is on the actual criminal. So if the pain of the victim is the metric to be applied, why should it make a difference whether or not the person is guilty?

If a rape victim becomes uncomfortable around men, should the victim then not have the right to have all men be arrested?

The problem is that we can’t cure a victim. We can only hope to cure society. Due process and commensurate penalties are what we have to do that.

It’s been said that democracy is the worst possible form of government except for all the rest. A similar thing may be said for due process and commensurate penalties.

They are pitiful, but better than everything else anybody came up with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

With a bit more thought, they might be able to make something like this work through a 2-stage process like sex offender registries, where registration is supposedly just an administrative action and not a punishment, and the fact that all sorts of other laws put restrictions on those on the registry is just hard luck and not a punishment either.

That’s how they can restrict registered sex offenders’ constitutional rights even after their sentence is up, and how they can increase the restrictions or retrospectively apply it to other crimes without being blocked as an ex post facto punishment.

Richard Johnson (user link) says:

Thus in essence this will give individuals to fasten people throughout imprisonment for life-long.
It reasons me personally emotional concern if the dude exactly who fully commited a criminal offenses throughout where by My partner and i was a victim is usually produced via imprisonment, thus he’s to return to help imprisonment. Replicate pertaining to the unlimited imprisonment occasion.

Joseph Miller (user link) says:

Laws, therefore, are about ‘building our better selves’ into the social institutions that govern behavior. We endorse laws like gun reform because we ought to live in a society where people’s ethical intuitions and norms for communication are informed by diplomacy and compassion, rather than deterrence through mutually assured destruction. We ought not live in a world where benign interactions are securitized through prejudice, stereotype, and threat construction because of constant fear that our concealed carrying neighbor has malignant intentions.

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