First Amendment Under Fire: Pennsylvania’s ‘Silencing Act’ Puts Society at Risk

First Amendment Under Fire: Pennsylvania’s ‘Silencing Act’ Puts Society at Risk

Most Americans take the Constitution and Bill of Rights for granted; they are simply an inextricable part of the very fabric of our society and nation. But this past October, a startling bill was fast-tracked through the Pennsylvania legislature that should make everyone pause and think about what those documents really mean.

On October 16, 2014, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Revictimization Relief Act, an amendment to the Crime Victims Act, which was ostensibly designed to muzzle anyone ever convicted of a crime. The law was aggressively forced through the legislature and promptly signed into law by former Republican governor Tom Corbett on October 21, 2014. While the law purports to protect victims of crime, its true purpose was to silence prisoners’ rights activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently serving a life sentence at SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, Pennsylvania.

Earlier that month, Abu-Jamal made headlines for delivering a pre-recorded commencement address at Goddard College, a school he’d attended in the 1970s, then graduated from in 1996 via correspondence while on Pennsylvania’s death row (his sentence was later commuted to life in prison). While he’d been invited to speak by the graduating class, his address heralded an outcry of criticism from victims, law enforcement, and even the state legislature — not for its content, but for no other reason than Abu-Jamal’s words had been provided for public consumption.

Just 11 days after the address, the act was born. It puts in place a mechanism for victims to petition courts to bring a civil action against a person who has ever been convicted of a crime whose speech “‘perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim [and] includes conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.” The law was staunchly supported by Gov. Corbett, who aimed to target the “obscene celebrity” of convicts like Abu-Jamal. Unfortunately for Corbett, just because he, or anyone else, doesn’t agree with what someone has to say — even a person convicted of a crime — it doesn’t give him, or the state legislature, the right to censor the speech.

HB2533 is a mere two pages long, which means it’s open to massive interpretation. No guidelines were promulgated to quantify what types of content or speech qualify for the act or what reaction is required by a victim to permit such censorship — it is entirely up to a judge’s discretion. Aside from the issue of no explanation of what might constitute “mental anguish” being provided, the definition of an “offender” is also absent, which means that even the formerly incarcerated could be affected by the law.

The act effectively censors an entire class of people based on what they might say or the presumptive reactions to that speech. It could apply to any medium: print, online, broadcast, or even in-person speech (insofar as a victim might hear about it). And if an injunction is successful, victims may also be able to claim their attorney’s fees — effectively suing the inmates. There can be little question that such a threat could create a “chilling effect” amongst prisoners and ex-inmates wanting to speak about their experiences.

Opponents of the law have spanned from the liberal ACLU of Pennsylvania to the conservative Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Upon reviewing the legislation, the ACLU of Pennsylvania stated that it “completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Tony Norman agreed, writing, “Taking away anyone’s right to free speech in a knee-jerk attempt to silence Abu-Jamal is a threat to us all.”

On January 8, 2015, eleven parties signed on to a lawsuit naming the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia district attorneys as defendants. The signatories included Prison Legal News, Solitary Watch, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, journalists, and academics. Other notable plaintiffs include several former inmates — now community leaders — who speak about their experiences to help reduce crime.

Regardless of where anyone resides on the political spectrum, the idea of censoring anyone because of who they are, what they might say, or someone else’s reactions to those words should be alarming to everyone. This isn’t an act designed to protect victims; it isn’t about being tougher on crime. It’s an attack on the U.S. Constitution, plain and simple — one that our nation’s forefathers would not stand for.

By cloaking the law in the language of “victims’ rights,” the legislature successfully hid how dangerous it is to our society and the American prison and legal systems. By conjuring visions of inmates using free speech to threaten or intimidate victims, they have obfuscated what’s really at risk here: the ability of prisoners to speak out about things like prison conditions and wrongful convictions and of former inmates to educate and inspire.