Prisoner Gag Law an Attack on Fundamental Free Speech Rights, say Critics

Observers charge that the "Revictimization Relief Act" will both muzzle prisoners as well as criminalize those media outlets who help to disseminate their voices. (Photo: Joe Piette via Philly IAC)

Prisoner Gag Law an Attack on Fundamental Free Speech Rights, say Critics

Pennsylvania governor signs law silencing prisoners' voices as race and class-based mass incarceration 'is being questioned more than ever,' charges attorney for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett on Tuesday signed into law a prisoner gag order that rights groups say is an affront to the First Amendment and a denial of all citizens' right to understand "an area of U.S. life physically removed from public scrutiny."

Passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on October 15 and the Senate a day later, HB 2533/ SB 508 will allow a judge to censor an inmate or former offender's public speech before it occurs by permitting a district attorney, the Attorney General, or a crime victim to file a complaint if the conduct will allegedly cause "a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish" to the victim.

Rights groups were quick to condemn the bill, saying its "overbroad" language will allow a court system to unilaterally stifle a prisoner's right to free speech as well as the media outlets and journalists who help disseminate prisoners' words and stories.

"Prisoner freedom of speech is crucial for redressing wrongful convictions and the current crisis of harsh sentencing that is often disproportionate to alleged crimes," reads a Roots Action petition signed by over 10,000 people condemning the legislation. "In seeking to silence the legally protected speech of prisoners, the state also damages citizens' right and freedom to know--in this case, to better understand an area of U.S. life physically removed from public scrutiny."

The petition adds that the newly energized debate on the problems with mass incarceration "could not have developed without prisoners' voices."

As the press freedom group Media Coalition noted in a letter (pdf) sent to Corbett, without such rights the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Rubin Hurricane Carter would not have been produced, as well as other works which led to convictions being overturned, such as The Thin Blue Lineand films about the West Memphis Three.

The legislation, known as the "Revictimization Relief Act," was quickly added to an unrelated Senate bill and brought to a rush vote in the state Congress last week after lifetime prisoner and political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal was chosen to give the October 6 commencement address at Vermont's Goddard College, which he delivered in a speech recorded over prison telephone lines.

"In seeking to silence the legally protected speech of prisoners, the state also damages citizens' right and freedom to know."Abu-Jamal has for years given interviews and speeches from his prison cell critiquing the political establishment and the criminal justice system. "The Legislature is trying to ban speech it doesn't like, and it just doesn't have the power to do that," Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, toldPhilly Mag. The bill, he said, is "by and large, Constitutionally impermissible."

"This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what behavior is prohibited," agreed Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause 'mental anguish' could be banned by a judge."

Corbett signed the speech Tuesday afternoon at the intersection of 13th and Locust Streets, the same spot where the radio journalist, Abu-Jamal, was shot and arrested after allegedly shooting Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner on December 9, 1981. Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence but in July 1982 was sentenced to Death Row. In December 2011, the death penalty was dropped and Abu-Jamal was resentenced to life in prison without parole.

According to reports, protesters interrupted the Republican governor's speech chanting "fund schools not jails!" A larger demonstration is planned for Wednesday and is set to correspond with a national Day of Action against police brutality.

"In the wake of the Ferguson rebellion, race and class-based mass incarceration, and the role of police in enforcing it with arbitrary arrests, frame-ups, and extrajudicial killings, is being questioned more than ever," said Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, which represents Abu-Jamal. "The Fraternal Order of Police and the government are scrambling to silence those questions, disingenuously using the language of 'victims rights' to re-establish the lie that police forces and other institutions of state violence are righteous protectors of public safety that are beyond question."

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