A coalition of prison inmates rights groups filed a federal lawsuit on Monday seeking to overturn a recently enacted law that allows the victims of violent crime to institute legal action against a convicted person whose actions are perceived to perpetuate the continued effects of the crime.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 508 into law immediately after its passing last month. The law known as the Crime Victims Act was amended on October 2, 2014 to include language for re-victimization relief. Under the amendment, which is called the Re-Victimization Relief Act, a victim of a personal injury crime could take civil action against an offender for conduct that perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime. The term conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim includes conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.
In addition the language of the statute allows district attorneys or the state attorney general may also institute a civil action against an offender for injunctive relief for conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.
Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal said the law is unconstitutional and are seeking to have a judge overturn it because it ultimately violates the right of free speech.
“How can the state’s legislators pass and politicians sign the recent law described as the ‘Muzzle Mumia Act’?” said Mumia Abu-Jamal in a press release issued by the Amistad Law Project. “They can’t, at least not constitutionally. In order to do so they had to knowingly and willingly violate both the U.S. and state constitutions and their very oaths of office.”
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said in a press release that the language inherent in the law was vague and far too broad.
“This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what behavior is prohibited,” Shuford said. “Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause ‘mental anguish’ could be banned by a judge.”
Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill shortly after Abu Jamal gave a pre-recorded commencement speech for Vermont’s Goddard College. Proponents of the measure said it’s designed to curb the “obscene celebrity” nurtured by prisoners like Abu-Jamal. The former radio commentator is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Corbett said the legislation was inspired by what he characterized as the excesses of one particular criminal.
“Although the law that I have signed today is not about any one single criminal, it was inspired by the excesses and pious hypocrisy of one particular killer,” Corbett said in an official statement. “This law clarifies, strengthens and empowers the victims of heinous crimes and makes it abundantly clear that victims have rights too.”
Abu-Jamal has given three commencement addresses in the past: One for Goddard College in 2008; one for Antioch College in Ohio in 2000; and one for Evergreen College in Washington in 1999.
“People who have been harmed by violence need relief–counseling, healing, restoration. Stifling speech doesn’t provide any of that,” said Amistad Law Project Legal Director Ashley Henderson. “The proponents of the law specifically targeted Mumia Abu-Jamal and in the process swept up a whole host of people; individuals who are incarcerated or not in prison. The fact that this bill is even on the books makes it less likely that people who have been convicted of personal injury crimes will speak out publicly. People who have been victims of abuse while in prison. These are the people who are already marginalized in our society.”
The Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center are representing Mumia Abu-Jamal, Prison Radio, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, Robert L. Holbrook, and Human Rights Coalition in a lawsuit that also names Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams as plaintiffs. The complaint was filed in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
“This law is clearly unconstitutional,” said Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “The Pennsylvania legislature and Governor Corbett wanted to use Mumia Abu-Jamal to score political points and passed a law that can’t pass constitutional muster. We’re suing Attorney General Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams before they can sue to keep Mumia from speaking publicly.”
The Human Rights Coalition, another plaintiff to the lawsuit, is consistently critical of human rights violations within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and is comprised of prisoners, prisoners’ family members, formerly incarcerated people, and community activists.
“Human Rights Coalition utilizes the voices, input, and leadership of people in prison in all of our work,” said Patricia Vickers of Human Rights Coalition. “We also document prison abuse and are concerned that this law will make people fearful of reporting abuse.”