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.

Filed Under: commencement speech, free speech, mumia abu-jamal, pennsylvania, revictimization


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Oct 2014 @ 4:55pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: 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....

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