Philadelphia — At a time when more and more convictions are being reversed and prisoners released because of improper, racist and even criminal actions by prosecuting attorneys, some of it exposed through DNA evidence, the state of Pennsylvania is rushing through a gag order to keep prisoners from being able to speak out to the public, especially when the prisoners are political, like Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Protests are being organized to say no to this outrageous attack on freedom of speech.
On Oct. 16, the Pennsylvania Legislature fast tracked the “Revictimization Relief Act” to give unlimited discretion to district attorneys, the state’s attorney general and crime victims to silence prisoner speech by claiming that such speech causes victims’ families “mental anguish.”
Introduced as HB2533 and SB508, amendments to the state’s existing Crime Victims Act, the RRA was rushed through just before the Legislature adjourns for the year. Gov. Tom Corbett will sign it in Philadelphia on Oct. 21 at the very spot where radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal was shot and arrested 33 years ago.
This politically charged legislation was introduced on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police and its allies after they tried, but failed, to stop Pennsylvania political prisoner Abu-Jamal from delivering his Oct. 5 commencement address to Goddard College in Vermont. Students at Goddard collectively chose Abu-Jamal as their commencement speaker and the administration supported the invitation.
This new law would deny the school the right to hear from its alumnus, Abu-Jamal, who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree there in 1996 while on death row.
The RRA would deny prisoners’ rights to free speech under the First Amendment by allowing for the filing of civil lawsuits to prevent their speaking, reaching the media or recording radio commentaries. Media outlets that disseminate prisoners’ voices could also be targeted with punitive monetary damages under the act.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach called this law “the most extreme violation of the First Amendment imaginable.” (philly.com, Oct. 17)
In seeking to silence the legally protected speech of prisoners, the state also damages the public’s right and freedom to know at a time when more attention is being focused on mass incarceration, police brutality and an unjust legal system. It is an attack on a freedom that must be guarded, especially when government officials do not agree with the content of speech they hear.
While aimed at silencing Abu-Jamal, the law would impact all prisoners in Pennsylvania jails as well as former inmates. It will also hamper campaigns like the one that won the release of political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz from decades of solitary confinement.
This latest effort to silence the movement on behalf of Abu-Jamal and against mass incarceration comes on the heels of growing militarization of civilian police forces that came to light during demonstrations against police brutality in Ferguson, Mo.
Increasingly, the very forces charged with upholding the law are the ones most often violating it.
In a comment about the RRA on Prison Radio, Mumia Abu-Jamal stated: “I welcome Gov. Corbett’s signature on an unconstitutional bill that proves that the government of Pennsylvania — the executive and the legislature — don’t give one whit about their own constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania nor the U.S. Constitution. It proves that they are the outlaws.”
While seriously underfunding public education in Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett has spent billions on constructing new prisons and millions more for legal fees to unsuccessfully defend previously passed legislation that also violated constitutional rights. The RRA is expected to face legal challenges as soon as it is signed.
Prisoners’ rights activists and supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal will be confronting Corbett when he comes to Philadelphia to sign the bill on Oct. 21.
On Oct. 22, which is also a national day of actions against police brutality and mass incarceration, a press conference denouncing the bill and announcing preventive actions will be held in Philadelphia, followed by street actions and an evening town hall.
A number of groups have signed onto a call in response to the bill. For the full statement, visit tinyurl.com/mpk5qae.