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Pennsylvania law aims to curb Mumia Abu-Jamal's 'obscene celebrity' (+video)

Gov. Tom Corbett signed a first-in-the-nation law allowing crime victims the right to seek an injunction against offenders on grounds that speech could cause 'mental anguish.' Civil rights groups are likely to challenge law in court.

Pennsylvania has set the stage for a new debate about the rights of crime victims versus the rights of criminal offenders.

Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed a swiftly passed bill into law Tuesday, the first in the country to give crime victims (and prosecutors acting on their behalf) the right to seek an injunction against offenders on the grounds that their speech or actions would perpetuate the continuing effect of the crime, including causing “mental anguish.”

The law developed in reaction to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Oct. 5 commencement address to Goddard College in Vermont, via a recording from prison. (The college holds about 20 commencements throughout the year for its various degrees, and students invited Mr. Abu-Jamal to give this address).

Abu-Jamal was convicted for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He was originally sentenced to death row, but a later court case changed his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Abu-Jamal had briefly attended Goddard College and later earned his degree from the school while in prison. He has maintained his innocence, written books and given radio commentaries about racial justice, and gained supporters around the world who believe he should be released from prison.

At the signing of the Revictimization Relief Act Tuesday, Governor Corbett was flanked by police officers, victims’ advocates, and Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner.

Mrs. Faulkner “has been taunted by the obscene celebrity that her husband’s killer has orchestrated from behind bars,” Corbett said. “This unrepentant cop killer has tested the limits of decency, while gullible activists and celebrities have continued to feed this killer’s ego at the expense of his victims.”

Civil liberties experts will likely challenge the law in court. “If the First Amendment means anything, it’s that government officials can’t silence people they don’t like,” says Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, in a Monitor interview. It would even apply to people who have served their sentence and been released, he says.

“We think this law is pretty clearly unconstitutional and is just a result of election-year pandering,” Mr. Walczak says. 

With roughly two weeks before Election Day, Corbett is behind in the polls.

Abu-Jamal, in a comment Monday, cited the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps, which ruled that a controversial pastor could protest matters of public concern on public streets near funerals. “They said that the First Amendment trumps emotional distress,” Abu-Jamal said, as reported by the independent news program “Democracy Now.”

But Jeffrey Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, says the law strikes the right balance: “The law does not prohibit prisoners from speaking out,… but by allowing victims to bring a civil claim, a judge can then look at the context and weigh all the factors and balance them out,” he says.

He compares it to protective orders for victims of domestic violence, which can enjoin the accused from communicating with victims and going to their homes or workplaces.

If the Pennsylvania law does withstand court challenge, “it’s a new tool for a lot of victims who are directly harassed by perpetrators from behind bars, and they really had very little recourse prior to this,” Mr. Dion says.

Advocates’ for prisoners’ rights say the law will not only hurt offenders, but also journalists and the public.

“Our society really has this incredible incarceration addiction. And we need to know, as journalists, what’s going on inside.… [This law] affects our ability as a community to get the information that we need,” said Noelle Hanrahan, the founder of Prison Radio, who has distributed Abu-Jamal’s commentaries, during an interview on the “Democracy Now” program.

Goddard College’s spokesperson, Samantha Kolber, said in a statement that the college was surprised by the legislature’s action.

“Silencing any portion of the population, even if many people do not want to hear from them, is a slippery slope,” she said. 

In an Oct. 1 letter to Goddard, Les Neri, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Pennsylvania, told the story of Danny Faulkner’s life as a police officer and family man. During the commencement address, he wrote, “I hope they’ll think of Danny's commitment to serve his community. I hope his story inspires them.”

 
 
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