Penn. Anti-Speech Law Designed to Censor Mumia Abu Jamal (and Others) Ruled Unconstitutional

No, the state cannot forbid those convicted of crimes from saying things that could 'retraumatize' their victims.


"But we really, really don't like him" is not a compelling legal argument.
Credit: Prison Radio/photo on Flickr

Last fall, Pennsylvania passed an outrageous anti-free-speech law designed entirely because lawmakers were upset that convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal was giving a pre-recorded commencement speech to a pack of Vermont college students. The law stated that those who had been convicted of crimes could not say or do anything that makes the victim or victims feel "a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish."

Yesterday a federal judge struck down the Revictimization Relief Act as "manifestly unconstitutional." From PennLive:

The attorney general's office defended the act, claiming it was justifiable to prevent criminals from causing their victims more harm.

[U.S. Middle District Chief Judge Christopher C.] Conner found the Constitution's First Amendment free speech guarantees trump such concerns, however.

"A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender's constitutional right to free expression," the judge wrote. "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."

He also found the Revictimization Act to be 'unlawfully proposed, vaguely executed and patently over-broad."

"However well-intentioned in its legislative efforts, the General Assembly fell woefully short of the mark," Conner wrote.

Conner pointed out how the proponents of the law were actually promoting the fact that it would silence Abu-Jamal. They vagueness of the law also made it impossible for those targeted to know in advance what sort of speech, actions or comments would "revictimize" somebody, resulting in an obvious chilling effect.

Eugene Volokh over at The Washington Post delves further into the legal problems with passing such a censorious law here.