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Mumia Abu-Jamal Sues to Block Pa. Criminal Gag Law

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 20, 2014 3:35 PM

Last month, we reported that the Pennsylvania legislature had passed Senate Bill No. 508, a law that would allow a crime victim to prevent the crime perpetrator from talking about the crime if doing so would make the crime victim feel bad.

The Pennsylvania law in this case was pretty squarely targeted at Mumia Abu Jamal, convicted in 1983 of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Almost immediately after Gov. Bill Corbett signed it into law, Mumia supporters sued to block its enforcement.

Lawsuit: It's Vague and Overbroad

Not to minimize crime victims' feelings, but the reality is that defendants don't surrender their First Amendment rights to discuss their crime, and we've all learned that inflicting emotional distress isn't enough to merit silencing a speaker, no matter how loathsome he or she may be.

And even if the purpose of the law were laudable, the law itself is fraught with problems. What's "mental anguish"? When is it enough to stifle a speaker? How temporary is "temporary" and how permanent "permanent"?

Many civil rights groups, including the ACLU, have blasted the law. "This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what behavior is prohibited. Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause 'mental anguish' could be banned by a judge," ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford told The Philadelphia Tribune.

The lawsuit, filed November 10 in federal court, contends that the law violates both the federal constitution the Pennsylvania constitution because it's "overbroad, vague, and penalizes a substantial amount of lawful speech, including truthful statements and speech on matters of public concern. The statute was explicitly written and passed in an attempt to penalize lawful speech."

Hard to argue with that.

Is This Happening More Often?

We can all have a hearty laugh about how ludicrously overbroad the law is. By its terms, it appears to allow any crime victim to enjoin any person convicted of a crime from speaking about any issue that makes the victim feel bad.

But what's more important is that laws like this one -- descendants of the "Son of Sam" laws from the 1980s -- are popping up more often. ABC News reported in July that South Carolina recently passed a law preventing defendants from profiting from their crimes, and New York is planning to expand its law to allow crime victims to get a cut of the money convicted criminals make off their stories.

Then again, these laws might be political stunts -- Pennsylvania's law was passed shortly before the November election (not that it helped; incumbent Corbett lost, though there's also the state pornography scandal to help that along).

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