'Mental anguish' law opposed by cop-killer debated in court
The law allows victims of violent crimes to seek civil injunctions against offenders whose conduct perpetuates their mental anguish
By Peter Jackson
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Prosecutors urged a federal judge Thursday to dismiss two challenges to a Pennsylvania law that opponents including convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal say violates prisoners' constitutional right to free speech.
The law allows victims of violent crimes to seek civil injunctions against offenders whose conduct perpetuates their mental anguish.
It was passed after a prerecorded commencement speech by Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life term for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, was played in October before 21 graduates of tiny Goddard College in Vermont. His claims that he is the victim of a racist justice system have attracted international attention, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
Attorneys for state Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, the defendants in both lawsuits, said the federal court lacks jurisdiction because the law has yet to be enforced.
Williams also has said he will not file suit under the law until questions about its constitutionality are resolved, said Assistant District Attorney Michael Scalera.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner said he would rule quickly on the plaintiffs' motions seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law.
David Shapiro, an assistant law professor at Northwestern University who is helping handle Abu-Jamal's suit, said the emotional rhetoric surrounding the law's passage by a unanimous vote of the Legislature already has had a chilling effect on what prisoners write and say.
Abu-Jamal was a regular contributor of commentaries aired on Free Speech Radio News until last fall, Shapiro said.
"That practice stopped the instant this statute went into effect," he told the judge.
Abbe Giunta, a senior deputy attorney general representing Kane, said Abu-Jamal has continued to publish articles online and work on books he is writing since the law was signed.
"Yet there have been absolutely no enforcement actions" that could be the basis for a legal challenge of the law, she said.
One of the lawsuits, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, focuses on how the law affects ex-prisoners as well as journalists and other professionals who work with offenders.
That suit alleges that the law stifles public debate on important issues, such as deficient prison conditions and mandatory life sentences for juveniles, because reporters fear being barred or penalized for publishing interviews with prisoners.
Plaintiffs in the other lawsuit include Abu-Jamal and two other Pennsylvania inmates serving life sentences; Prison Radio, a company that records inmate commentaries aired on radio and TV stations; and the Human Rights Coalition, whose members include prisoners' families, ex-prisoners and activists.