PLN editor quoted re PA law restricting speech of prisoners and their supporters
Vol. 79/No. 5 February 16, 2015
Lawsuits challenge new Penn. law silencing prisoners, press
BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
Two lawsuits have been filed challenging a new Pennsylvania gag law that takes aim at prisoners’ right to free speech and the rights of those who publish what they say.
Dubbed the “Revictimization Relief Act” — but more accurately described as a “Silencing Act” — the law would allow a county district attorney, the state’s attorney general or anyone who says they have been affected by a crime to file a civil lawsuit to shut down inmates’ right to discuss their case, prison conditions or anything else, on the grounds it causes a victim or family member “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
“The purpose of the law is to silence people and cut prisoners out of the path for public discourse of public justice issues and to cut prisoners out of discussions in general,” Paul Wright, editor of the Florida-based magazine Prison Legal News, said in a phone interview Jan. 30. The magazine is lead plaintiff in one of the legal challenges.
The law could be used against all publications that cover news from current and former prisoners, including the Militant.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther Party member who has been imprisoned in Pennsylvania for 33 years, is lead plaintiff in the other suit. Abu-Jamal, who was framed up on charges of murdering Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia cop, and was held in solitary on death row until 2011, was the first target of the gag act.
“This is a big deal for us,” continued Wright. “Ninety to 95 percent of the content of our publication is by prisoners and former prisoners.”
The way the law is written, prisoners convicted of a violent crime such as murder and then exonerated could still be sued for writing and speaking about their cases and experiences in prison, he said. Wright himself spent 17 years in prison in Washington state, where he started the magazine.
Filed in federal court Jan. 8 by the American Civil Liberties Union, the suit by Prison Legal News seeks an injunction against Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia County District Attorney Seth Williams barring enforcement of the law. Among the other 10 plaintiffs are Philadelphia City Paper, Pennsylvania Prison Society, Solitary Watch, and former prisoners.
The law was passed overwhelmingly by the Pennsylvania legislature after Abu-Jamal delivered a recorded commencement speech Oct. 5 to Goddard College in Vermont. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill Oct. 21.
The talk concentrated on world politics. “The present social, political, ecological and global course is, to say the least, unsustainable,” Abu-Jamal, who graduated from Goddard, told the students. “Perhaps some of you, new graduates of Goddard, will think up ways to forestall some of the challenges facing the living and generations unborn.”
The talk “had nothing to do with the criminal justice system,” Wright said.
“I was invited by the staff and the students and the administrators to talk to my college about what it meant to get an education from Goddard,” Abu-Jamal told Amy Goodman in an interview on her program “Democracy Now” Oct. 24. “I did that. And if the Constitution doesn’t protect that, then it protects nothing.”
Upon hearing that the talk was to take place, Maureen Faulkner — widow of Daniel Faulkner and a leading spokesperson to keep Abu-Jamal behind bars — told Fox News that the government should shut him up.
“I am utterly outraged that such a reprehensible person would be able to revictimize officer Daniel Faulkner’s family with this kind of self-promoting behavior,” Rep. Mike Vereb, a former cop, wrote in a memo to fellow legislators seeking co-sponsors for the act.
Abu-Jamal, joined by seven other plaintiffs, filed his challenge to the gag act in November. They are represented by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, the Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project. The two lawsuits will be heard together in Harrisburg Feb. 26.
“Freedom of speech is important because sometimes it’s offensive or upsetting to people but none are reasons to censor under the First Amendment,” Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told the Militant Jan. 30. “The Supreme Court made clear that prisoners don’t lose freedom of speech rights by virtue of conviction.”