Court Rejects Pennsylvania's Ridiculous Law That Takes Away First Amendment For Convicts

from the the-first-amendment-lives dept

Last fall, we wrote about a very troubling law that was passed in Pennyslvania that flat out stripped First Amendment rights from any convict. The law was clearly passed directly in response to Goddard College deciding to have Mumia Abu-Jamal give a commencement speech for the college. Abu-Jamal is certainly a controversial figure, but apparently this was so troubling to some in the Pennsylvania legislature that they passed a “Revictimization Relief Act” that said if a convict’s actions 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 we noted at the time, interpreted broadly, this would even forbid a convict from appealing their own conviction, if the victim in the case claimed that it would cause mental anguish to go through another legal process — and thus they could be barred.

Thankfully, many stepped up to challenge the law, and a federal court has made fairly quick work of it by striking down the law as unconstitutional. The court clearly recognized that the bill was entirely about stopping Abu-Jamal from speaking:

The Act’s sponsor, State Representative Mike Vereb, announced the bill on October 2, 2014, just three days after Goddard College?a small liberal arts college in Vermont and plaintiff Mumia Abu-Jamal’s alma mater?announced its selection of Abu-Jamal as its commencement speaker…. His cosponsor memorandum admonished an unidentified ?convicted killer? for ?traumatizing the victim’s family.?…

During an October 21 bill-signing event near the intersection where Abu-Jamal’s crime of conviction occurred, then-Governor Tom Corbett lauded the Act for its ability to enjoin offenders whose speech distresses victims. The Governor noted that the Act ?is not about any one single criminal? but was ?inspired by the excesses and hypocrisy of one particular killer,? …, transparently referencing Abu-Jamal.

The court, rightly, found that this was overhwelmingly unconstitutional (“manifestly unconstitutional,” as the court says) for a fairly long list of reasons:

The court concludes that the challenged statute betrays several constitutional requirements; the enactment is unlawfully purposed, vaguely executed, and patently overbroad in scope. However well-intentioned its legislative efforts, the General Assembly fell woefully short of the mark. The result is a law that is manifestly unconstitutional, both facially and as applied to plaintiffs.

In fact, Judge Christopher Conner seemed perplexed that Pennsylvania politicians seemed to think that just because someone had been convicted of previous crimes, that had anything to do with the First Amendment questions at play:

Significantly, however, the fact that certain plaintiffs have been convicted of infamous or violent crimes is largely irrelevant to our First Amendment analysis. A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender’s constitutional right to free expression. 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.

Furthermore, the judge recognized what an incredible chilling effect such a law is already having, pointing to some of the plaintiffs who are former prisoners who are now activists and advocates for crime- and prison-related issues.

Since its passage, the Revictimization Act has had an undeniable chilling effect on the speech of prisoners and on the behavior of those individuals and entities who rely on that speech. Although several plaintiffs have continued their respective endeavors without restraint or repercussion, … some have limited their commentaries or been denied publication for fear of the Act’s enforcement. For example, nonparty Free Speech Radio News ceased widely publishing Abu-Jamal’s weekly commentaries on the radio….. Kerry Shakaboona Marshall (?Marshall?) shelved publication of his book, a memoir of his experiences as a juvenile serving life in prison without parole…. Anthony Chance (?Chance?) will publish under a pseudonym, in an effort to avoid the Act’s scope…. Prison Radio, HRC, and EMAJ 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…. PLN withheld publication of an article authored by Abu-Jamal, … and PPS published a warning in its ?Graterfriends? newsletter admonishing potential authors of the new risk attendant to prisoner publications.

In other words, the risk to the First Amendment was not just theoretical here. The impact and the stifling of free speech was real and immediate.

But, of course, it’s not over yet. Those who supported the law are apparently planning to appeal the ruling, though one hopes that any such appeals will be slapped down just as thoroughly. Meanwhile, Mike Vereb, the state legislator who apparently has nothing but contempt for the First Amendment, has said that if the appeal doesn’t work he’ll amend the law and try again, and notes that he considers this “a fight” that he’s going to continue. He also doesn’t understand how this suppresses speech even after the judge laid it out in such great detail:

“It wasn’t suppressing speech, it was suppressing harassment and revictimization of our victims,” Vereb said. “This is the first ring of the bell in this fight. The victims need fighters, we’re fighters.”

Dude. Seriously. The judge himself put together a long list of how it was absolutely suppressing speech. It’s not about “harassment” or “revictimization” just because it hurts your feelings that someone speaks publicly. How is Vereb even in office after such a blatantly unconstitutional move?

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Comments on “Court Rejects Pennsylvania's Ridiculous Law That Takes Away First Amendment For Convicts”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Wow, I’ve never heard of this law, and I actually live in Mike Vereb’s district. The guy has been around for ages, and his district is so heavily gerrymandered he doesn’t even need to worry about general elections. Last election my house was one of the only houses in the neighborhood that didn’t have a ‘Mike Vereb’ sign on the front lawn.

Maybe I should read those Mike Vereb news letters and actually send feedback on things it mentions, instead of just throwing them into my junk folder unread.

Cynical and Disappointed says:

Stuff like this makes me wish that there was a rule that drafting an unconstitutional law could be grounds for automatic recall/impeachment on the grounds that the person in question clearly does not understand their duty as an agent of the US or state government.

Then again, think of the chilling effect this would have on the ignorant bureaucrats and petty tyrants already in office!

Stuff like this used to make me angry but now it’s just sad. It seems like at all levels of government, the only thing that crosses party lines is the hippocracy that preaches American Exceptionalism, then espouses ideas that are in direct opposition to the values which expressions made this country so unique at the time in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Stuff like this makes me wish that there was a rule that drafting an unconstitutional law could be grounds for automatic recall/impeachment on the grounds that the person in question clearly does not understand their duty as an agent of the US or state government.

Based on what? A court finding? But the courts also routinely disagree on what is constitutional or unconstitutional. If there weren’t circuit splits, the Supreme Court wouldn’t have a job.

If you don’t like it, elect someone else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you don’t like it, elect someone else.

Good idea. I’ll just get those millions of dollars I have sitting around in a bank account in the Cayman Islands out and outbid the the political machines that have already bought the next election.

This advice is as practically useless as saying, “write to your congressman.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Depends. The only way to punish someone for a particular stance is for the opponents to disagree and the media to make it an important issue for the election. If an issue is difficult to get media to cover or an opposing politician to take on, the issue is unimportant in the election. Companies are clever enough to mostly buy those non-mediafriendly issues and buy them from both sides, thereby completely shorting the popularity issues.

When you elect a politician you get a bag with it. Most above average informed people will only peel in the surface of that bag before a person is elected. The media and the opposing politicians are the only ones able to raise an issue and you can circumvent both on a lot of issues.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

For a Pennsylvania lower-house representative? Millions would be overkill. $100,000 would probably be enough to fund a viable candidate.

This advice is as practically useless as saying, “write to your congressman.”

Much less useless at the state level than the national level. In Pennsylvania, each lower-house state legislator represents about 63,000 people. (Compared to about 710,000 per congressman in that state.) That’s a low enough number that writing can be effective.

dakre (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Heh, i agree about the “Write to your congressman” remark. I’ve tried that, then get a response from an intern, who failed to remove the note to clean it up before sending it out. All they gave me in return was “well he’s for it so :p” and the note was “In regard to China. (Suzanne: this is a letter our Tulsa intern wrote. Can you insert the proper language and then workflow back to me? Thanks!!!)” No idea what the in regard to china was about, and it was at the end in red text with the note.

Gotta love how much they care…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Which is why I was actually serious with this line:

“Then again, think of the chilling effect this would have on the ignorant bureaucrats and petty tyrants already in office!”

Ultimately it is the resposibility of the citizenry to take their officials to task, not another law. At the same time, considering the power of the two-party machine, even citizen action and grass-roots organizing is largely non-starter. From what I can tell, the impact of the so-called “tea party revolution”, hasn’t really led to major churn within the Republican party, and when it did, lead to IMO, un-electable whack-jobs. Something that a party can ill-afford. it just swings internal pendulum back to the same colorless, PAC funded, partisan-to-the-point-of-stupidity establishment characters. The result is this kind of legislating, the banality of feel-good authoritarianism.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Instead of impeachment, how about adding a clause to the definition of treason, to include willfully and reasonably knowingly acting to subvert the constitution through legislative acts other than the well established process of amending the constitution?

The more education you have in the law, the more that clause would bite you for introducing unconstitutional bills. Treason is a crime you can be impeached for, so it handles your idea as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How are they still in office?

Because the electorate is stupid and can’t be bothered to actually support the constitution they ONLY want when they find that it serves their own purposes but reject it when it does not.

Did you notice that no one is complaining about breach of the 2nd when it comes to criminals as well?

If you think it is okay for them to remove your guns because you are a felon then you have no standing to challenge them when they quite literally removed their right to free speech.

There is not even a single amendment not under some form of assault, and while this is something that will always occur, it is something that is occurring way to damn much now, but people like you “Wonder” why they are still in office. You know better, I know better, and all we do is sit on a chat forum and fuck around about it and forget 30 minutes later.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: How are they still in office?

There’s a legitimate reason to not allow felons to own guns. There’s not a legitimate reason to prevent them from speaking.

There is not even a single amendment not under some form of assault

I haven’t heard about many assaults to the 26th or the 12th, among others. If you were referring to only the Bill of Rights, the 3rd is the one usually cited as not having many cases based on it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: How are they still in office?

The second amendment seems to get many panties twisted all at once, but the other amendments do not seem to get the same amount of love – why is that?

Take away the fourteenth? – no big deal, right?
Take away the first? – they will get over it.

But don’t you dare even talk about removing the second amendment because them is fightin’ words!

Jasmine Charter says:


I am mixed about this. On one hand, I am VERY pro 1st amendment. On the other hand, there needs to be a way to prevent someone from profiting from a crime.

Then again, if some crazed, naive bunch of juvenile and young adult idiots want to hear a convicted cop killer (who has not gotten his conviction overturned on appear) speak, who am I to want to stop them. You can’t cure stupid.

John85851 (profile) says:

We don't want to be offended

How is Vereb even in office after such a blatantly unconstitutional move?

I know that’s probably a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway: because we live in a society where people want to be protected from anything that might offend them. Then politicians pander to this feeling by saying they’re only targeting criminals with the new laws. Then people get behind the law because they’d rather not be offended than have a constitutional right to free speech.

I’d love to see a test run of this law. What happens when the supporters themselves are accused of offending someone and they get hit with a lawsuit? Oh, whoops, they didn’t think it would apply to them.

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