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Pa. Bill Would Allow Crime Victims to Silence 'Offenders'

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on October 20, 2014 2:56 PM

From the "that's a terrible idea" department comes a proposed law from Pennsylvania, Senate Bill No. 508, that would allow a crime victim to obtain an injunction preventing the criminal "offender" from engaging in "conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim." This is further defined as "conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish."

According to Techdirt, the bill was authored following a pre-taped commencement speech given by Mumia Abu-Jamal to the graduate of his correspondence college. Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, and his name evokes strong feelings in both the police and prisoners' rights communities. Some state legislators in Pennsylvania were apparently so outraged that criminals have First Amendment rights that they passed Senate Bill No. 508 in a few days.

Not That It's Going to Help

The proposed law, of course, is probably unconstitutional. Like, super unconstitutional. So outlandishly, brazenly unconstitutional, it may as well be wearing comically oversized clown shoes.

In addition to being vague (who's an "offender"? A person who's been arrested? Indicted? Convicted? What about someone who's served his or her sentence?), the law is also overbroad; does it purport to enjoin this nebulous "offender" from ever speaking again, on any issue that could conceivably cause the victim "anguish"?

As Techdirt helpfully points out, the U.S. Supreme Court has already been here. In Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board, the Court unanimously held New York's "Son of Sam" law unconstitutional. The law required publishers of books written by a person accused or convicted of a crime to garnish all the money that person was going to be paid and place it in a fund for the victim for five years.

The proposed Pennsylvania law is even broader than that. Where the "Son of Sam" law applied only to books written about the crime the author-offender committed, the Pennsylvania law would apply to any "conduct" that meets the squishy requirement of causing the victim mental anguish -- as defined by the victim (although it's not clear whose definition of "anguish" is controlling).

Even the Sponsor Doesn't Like It Anymore

Paul Levy of the Consumer Law & Policy Blog pointed out Friday that the bill's primary sponsor withdrew his name from the legislation. As of Monday, the bill has passed both houses of the state legislature and is ready for Gov. Tom Corbett's signature. No word yet on whether Corbett and other high-ranking members of the state's government who are porn "offenders" would be enjoined from discussing the so-called Porngate scandal. I certainly feel anguish every time I have to hear about it.

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