By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Free Speech Week is October 20-26. Here in the commonwealth, Governor Tom Corbett celebrated by signing a bill that allows courts to censor speech before it happens.
Wait, huh? What?
On Tuesday, Corbett signed the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act,” or what I’ve taken to calling the Free Speech Decimation Act. Perhaps it would be better to title it the Fund the Lawyers Act.
Senate Bill 508 allows a district attorney or the Attorney General or the victim of a “personal injury” crime to seek an order from a civil court to block the “conduct” of a person with a criminal conviction if the conduct “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” That phrase is defined as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
If you know what that is, please drop us a line.
This new law is riddled with free speech problems. It is government censorship of speech that powerful people do not want to hear. Any person with a criminal conviction, whether he is currently incarcerated or was released years or decades earlier, would have his ability to speak publicly about his experience, the criminal justice system, or any unknown thing effectively chilled. Why speak up when there is a chance you’ll be hauled into civil court?
On numerous occasions, people with criminal convictions have spoken at press conferences and have testified at hearings at the state capitol. This new law chills that type of advocacy. If this law had been in effect a few years ago, would we know the story of Stacey Torrance, who is serving life-without-parole? Stacey was 14 when he participated in a robbery that ended in murder. The victim was killed 24 hours after Stacey left the scene of the robbery.
Would we know the story of Edwin Desamour, who at 16 faced the death penalty, was ultimately convicted of third-degree homicide, and served eight and a half years in prison? After his release, Edwin helped found Men in Motion in the Community, or MIMIC, to work with at-risk boys in Philadelphia.
What happens to the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s publication Graterfriends? The Prison Society offers inmates an outlet to write about their personal experiences and about public policy issues.
All of this valuable speech is potentially chilled by this new law.
The General Assembly passed this bill in record time after Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a recorded speech to 20 graduates of Goddard College in Vermont. In the speech, Abu-Jamal made no mention of the crime for which he was convicted, the shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, and only briefly alludes to being on death row. You can read or listen to the speech here.
A reporter asked me the other day if it is difficult advocating for the rights of people who are deeply disliked. I replied that we wouldn’t need the First Amendment if we only allowed popular speech. The right to free speech exists to ensure that even unpopular ideas or unpopular people are heard.
The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech to counter it, not government censorship. We look forward to discussing the First Amendment with the commonwealth in a court of law.