A prisoner gag law in Philadelphia, apparently triggered by rage at a recent commencement speech at Goddard College by alumni, inmate and author Mumia Abu-Jamal, is being challenged in court as an unconstitutional abrogation of the right of speech. The legal challenge is being mounted by the Abolitionist Law Center and Prison Radio producer and former MA board member Noelle Hanrahan, who has been distributing Abu-Jamal’s commentaries for decades. Their press release below.
MEDIA RELEASE: “Silence Mumia Law” targets Mumia Abu-Jamal and Prison Radio for political repression in violation of the U.S. Constitution
October 21, 2014: Pittsburgh, PA – Prison Radio and imprisoned intellectual and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal have retained the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) to provide legal representation for them in response to Pennsylvania General Assembly’s passage of a bill intended to subvert the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and repress their free speech rights. The Abolitionist Law Center is working with the attorneys Kris Henderson and Nikki Grant of the Philadelphia-based Amistad Law Project on this matter as well. Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that advocates for the human rights of all people and currently focuses its work on those inside Pennsylvania’s prisons. ALC, along with the Amistad Law Project, are representing Robert Saleem Holbrook, an imprisoned activist, writer, and member of the Human Rights Coalition.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s scheduled signing of what the Harrisburg Patriot referred to as the “Muzzle Mumia Law” today allows those who have been victims of a personal-injury crime to sue an offender for conduct that causes the victim “mental anguish.” The statute is so devoid of definition or standards that the Harrisburg Patriot wrote: “Some victims of terrible crimes will be in a ‘state of mental anguish’ as long as the person who did it to them is alive and breathing. Does ‘breathing’ qualify as ‘conduct’ that’s now subject to court action?”
The law was passed in response to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s selection as a commencement speaker to Goddard College students at his alma mater in Vermont. Leading up to and in the wake of this speech, the Fraternal Order of Police, Governor Corbett, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and a number of legislators staged a media campaign designed to whip up a frenzy of support for depriving Abu-Jamal, and any other person convicted of a crime, of their constitutional right to free speech. The law also permits the District Attorney where the criminal conviction was obtained, or the state’s Attorney General, to use their public offices and taxpayer funds to file the lawsuit, raising the possibility that Mumia will be sued for his speech by politicians and government officials who have made a habit of attacking him in order to win the support of the FOP for their election campaigns.
On October 17, Mumia Abu-Jamal issued a statement (broadcast at Prison Radio) from the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy where he is serving a sentence of life-without-parole after being framed for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer:
I welcome Governor Corbett’s signature on an unconstitutional bill that proves that the government of Pennsylvania, the executive and the legislature, don’t give one wit about their own constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, nor the United States Constitution. I welcome that because it proves that they are the outlaws.
Abu-Jamal has spent 33 years in prison, 30 of which were in solitary confinement on death row, after being convicted at a 1982 trial that, according to Amnesty International, “failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.” (see Manufacturing Guilt to learn more about the case) By continuing his journalism as well as maintaining his innocence and attracting a massive international movement of supporters, Mumia has long been targeted by the Fraternal Order of Police and their political counterparts. “Having failed to kill Mumia on the street in 1981, and having failed to execute him during his over 30 years on death row, the FOP and the government of Pennsylvania continues to try to silence him, this time by extinguishing his speech,” said Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.
Abu-Jamal has given three other commencement addresses in the past: Goddard in 2008, Antioch College in 2000, and Evergreen College in 1999. He has recorded more than 3,000 essays, published seven books in nine languages, with two more books set for publication in 2015, and has been the subject of three major broadcast and theatrical movies. The latest film, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, is currently airing on the Starz network, sold out theatres coast to coast, and has sold more than 20,000 DVDs.
“The ‘Silence Mumia Law’ should be understood as part of a reaction against recent criticisms of the prison and criminal legal systems. In the wake of the Ferguson rebellion, race and class-based mass incarceration, and the role of police in enforcing it with arbitrary arrests, frame-ups, and extrajudicial killings, is being questioned more than ever. The Fraternal Order of Police and the government are scrambling to silence those questions, disingenuously using the language of ‘victims rights’ to re-establish the lie that police forces and other institutions of state violence are righteous protectors of public safety that are beyond question. This illegal attack on our clients’ constitutional and human rights will be fiercely challenged in the streets and the courts,” said ALC Legal Director Bret Grote.