HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A federal judge Tuesday threw out a Pennsylvania law designed to prevent offenders from causing mental anguish to crime victims, calling it an illegal restriction on the right to free expression.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner ruled against the law that was enacted quickly late last year after Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a recorded commencement address to a small Vermont college. Abu-Jamal is serving life for the 1981 killing of Officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia.
“A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender’s constitutional right to free expression,” Conner 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 said law was unlawfully purposed, vaguely executed and patently overbroad, and said legislators “fell woefully short of the mark.”
The law passed the House unanimously and the Senate by a wide margin, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Tom Corbett in October.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said the law was designed to help victims.
“Basically all this law said was, if somebody feels they’re being infringed upon by these actions, they have the right to take it to court,” Miskin said.
A lead attorney for the plaintiffs, which included Abu-Jamal, four other prisoners, Prison Legal News and other parties, called the decision a major vindication of the right to engage in public debate on important social questions.
“Much of the speech that is protected as a result of the ruling, and it was at issue in this case, is extremely important speech on matters of public concern,” said the lawyer, David M. Shapiro.
Rep. Mike Vereb, a suburban Philadelphia Republican who sponsored the law, said that if an appeal is not taken he plans to push for an amended version of the law in the Legislature.
“It wasn’t suppressing speech, it was suppressing harassment and revictimization of our victims,” Vereb said. “This is the first ring of the bell in this fight. The victims need fighters, we’re fighters.”
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said a decision about any appeal would be made after the ruling was reviewed.
The law let victims seek civil injunctions against offenders who act in ways that perpetuate mental anguish. It was rushed through after Abu-Jamal gave the address on Oct. 5 to Goddard College, which he briefly attended in 1970.
Conner rejected an argument by the attorney general’s office - which defended the law - that it only restricted behavior and did not regulate free expression.
“Throughout its brief legislative gestation, the law was championed primarily as a device for suppressing offender speech,” wrote Conner, italicizing the word “primarily.” Conner was named to the court 13 years ago by President George W. Bush.
The Revictimization Relief Act, as it was called, “is the embodiment of content-based regulation of speech,” Conner wrote. “Its terms single out a distinct group and disincentivize its members from speaking.”
He also said it was too vague, noting it did not define the term “offender,” so people could not know whose conduct it attempted to regulate.
“As a result, many plaintiffs- prisoners and non-prisoners alike - instantly modified their conduct for fear of falling within the ambit of the act,” the judge said.
He said the law hinged on the emotional response of victims.
“Short of clairvoyance, plaintiffs cannot determine in advance whether and to what extent a particular expression will impact a victim’s sensibilities,” Conner wrote.
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