It’s Free Speech Week! So how did Pennsylvania celebrate?

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

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.

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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.

Protect Pennsylvania’s Pregnant Workers

By Julie Zaebst, Project Manager, Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project
Pregnant
Anyone who has been pregnant or accompanied a partner through pregnancy knows it’s not always easy, even under the best circumstances. When my partner was pregnant with our son last year, she was perfectly healthy and had what you would call an “easy pregnancy.” But still, her lifestyle changed (and mine along with it!). At work, my partner ate small snacks throughout the day, used the restroom more often, and stood up to stretch and walk around every now and then. That’s what she needed to do to stay healthy.

But imagine having to choose between a healthy pregnancy and your job – right at the moment when your income and your employer-sponsored health insurance (if you’re lucky enough to have it) are most important. Too many pregnant women, especially those in low-wage or physically demanding jobs, are put in that position because their employers refuse to accommodate pregnant women in the same way that they routinely accommodate other workers, including those who are injured on the job or are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And unfortunately some courts have agreed that this is OK.

In many cases, pregnant women need simple job modifications to be able to continue to work – more frequent restroom breaks, a stool to sit on, or permission to carry a water bottle. In some cases, they may need to be put on light duty. But by definition, these are temporary accommodations. Studies show that accommodating pregnancy-related conditions is typically low-cost and low-effort. And there are big benefits for employers, including increased worker productivity and retention.

Recognizing these benefits for employees and employers, Pittsburgh City Council passed two common-sense measures designed to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One measure clarifies that discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition. This strengthens anti-discrimination protections for pregnant workers. The other measure requires many city contractors to provide reasonable accommodations to enable pregnant women to continue in their jobs, unless this would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh City Council doesn’t have the authority under state law to expand protections to pregnant women who work for private employers. Now, it’s up to the state legislature to step in and pass the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would provide coverage to more women in Pittsburgh and protect women in other parts of the state as well. This must be a priority when the legislature reconvenes in the new year.

In 2014, it should not be news to anyone that women are in the workforce, and they are often the sole or primary breadwinners for their families. It’s time for the law to catch up with reality and protect pregnant workers from having to make an impossible choice. Pennsylvania women should not be forced to choose between their health and their livelihood anymore.

Julie Zaebst joined the ACLU-PA in July 2014, bringing more than 10 years of experience as a program manager and advocate.