PHILADELPHIA - The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of journalists, news outlets, advocacy organizations, and community leaders who were formerly incarcerated, seeking to block enforcement of a recently passed state law that stifles the free speech rights of thousands of individuals and organizations. Under the “Silencing Act,” a district attorney, the Attorney General, or a victim of a personal injury crime can ask a judge to prohibit an offender from engaging in any conduct, including speech, that would cause “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish” to the victim or otherwise “perpetuate the continuing effect of the crime” on the victim. The law was passed this fall in response to a recorded commencement speech given by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania state prison for the shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
The law’s impact extends far beyond Abu-Jamal, however, affecting not only individuals who are in prison, but also formerly incarcerated persons as well as professionals, including journalists, who work with offenders. According to the lawsuit, the Silencing Act stifles public debate on critical issues, such as deficient prison conditions, mandatory life sentences for juveniles, and innocence claims, because reporters covering these issues now fear they will be prevented from or even penalized for publishing interviews with prisoners.
“Laws designed to silence anyone, even people society may find disagreeable, are unconstitutional and bad for democracy. This law reaches broadly, and could prevent innocent prisoners from seeking clemency, journalists from using sources to expose prison abuse, and formerly incarcerated persons from speaking publicly,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Seven of the eleven plaintiffs, including Prison Legal News, rely on and publish speech by individuals convicted of personal injury crimes to inform the public and spur government action regarding issues of public concern. Those issues include wrongful convictions, prison conditions, penal policy, juvenile life without parole, and clemency. The other four plaintiffs are individuals formerly incarcerated for personal injury crimes who share their own experiences with a wide range of audiences to help reduce crime and facilitate successful prisoner reentry.
“It is equally important that prisoners be able to speak and the public be able to hear what they have to say as the eyewitnesses to the operation of the criminal justice system with a perspective no one else has. Everyone – even prisoners – has a right to free speech and expression free from government interference,” said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine that reports on criminal justice issues and prison and jail-related civil litigation, including prison labor, rape and sexual abuse, and misconduct by prison and jail staff.
Today’s lawsuit,Prison Legal News v. Kane, is related to Abu-Jamal v. Kane, Case No. 1:14-CV-2148 (M.D. Pa.), a lawsuit challenging the law that was filed in November.
The plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak and Sara Rose of the ACLU-PA, Amy Ginensky and Eli Segal of Pepper Hamilton’s Philadelphia office, Tom Schmidt and Tucker Hull of Pepper’s Harrisburg office, and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Prison Legal News is also represented by Lance Weber and Sabarish Neelakanta of the Human Rights Defense Center.
More about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/PLN