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?