Skip navigation

PA officials move to dismiss suit against state's "silencing law"

Pennsylvania Record, Feb. 28, 2015.

Attorney General, DA argue for dismissal of prisoners’ free speech suit

HARRISBURG – Lawyers representing Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams appeared before federal Judge Christopher Conner Thursday in support of their motions to dismiss a lawsuit filed in January by media outlets and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction against Senate Bill 508, also known as the Revictimization Relief Act, a recently passed state law designed to prevent prisoners from performing actions that force the families of their victims to relive the crimes. They claim that the legislation violates the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution by robbing prisoners of their right to free speech.

In their briefs in support of the motions to dismiss, Kane and Williams argue that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against either defendant.

“Notably, the complaint does not allege that an action authorized by the RRA has been brought by the District Attorney or Attorney General on behalf of any crime victim, or even that the District Attorney has threatened such an action,” Williams wrote in his brief.

Kane further argues that the injuries described in the original complaint are speculative, anticipating future actions against prisoners seeking to write articles for publications like the plaintiffs, Prison Legal News magazine and the Philadelphia City Paper. However, Kane wrote, the language within the Act says that a court will determine whether a prisoner’s actions merit a temporary or permanent injunction.

“This intervening determination of whether the conduct has caused temporary or permanent mental anguish would remove the threat of enforcement against Plaintiffs and makes clear their allegations are speculative,” Kane argues.

For example, the court documents say, convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal continues to publish writings and lectures on an almost daily basis. As recently as Feb. 1, Abu-Jamal published 14 audio recordings to in a single day, yet there has been no enforcement action or private civil suit commenced against him under the Act.

The legislation, referred to in the complaint as the Silencing Act, was fast-tracked by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last fall in response to Abu-Jamal’s recording of a commencement speech for the fall graduates of Goddard College in Vermont, where Abu-Jamal received a Bachelor’s Degree while on death row.

Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner. Over the years, his incarceration became a cause celebre for activists who argue that he was given an unfair trial based on faulty evidence. In 2011, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.

Supporters of Daniel Faulkner’s surviving wife and family have maintained that Abu-Jamal’s continued publishing and speech-making have repeatedly caused them harm by forcing them to relive Faulkner’s tragic death and forced them into the public limelight.

One day after Abu-Jamal’s remarks, recorded via telephone by Prison Radio, were played for the Goddard College graduates, state lawmakers held a press conference announcing the bill, which allows lawmakers to enact an injunction against convicted prisoners from performing actions that would cause victims mental anguish.

The General Assembly passed the bill weeks later, with Corbett signing it into law surrounded by Maureen Faulkner and Philadelphia police officers during a special ceremony at the site of Daniel Faulkner’s murder.

The federal case ID is 1:15-cv-00045-CCC.