The American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) is supporting an effort to overturn a new Pennsylvania law that gives victims of violent crime the power to silence the speech of the criminals who hurt them. It joined an amicus brief filed Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
The Revictimization Relief Act authorizes civil suits to ban criminals from saying anything that causes “mental anguish” to victims or their families. “Crime victims deserve great sympathy, but the law makes it possible to suppress almost anything that people convicted of crimes want to say even after they have served their sentences,” ABFE Director Chris Finan said. “It would make it difficult for journalists to investigate claims of wrongful imprisonment and prison abuses and might have prevented the writing of important books like In Cold Blood and Executioner’s Song.”
The law was passed last year after a public outcry over the fact that a prison inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, was able to record a speech that was played during the October 2014 commencement ceremonies at Goddard College in Vermont. Abu-Jamal, who has written books critical of race relations and the criminal justice system, was convicted of killing a police officer in 1981, a charge he denies. Abu-Jamal is challenging the law in a separate lawsuit.
The ACLU lawsuit focuses on the impact that the Revictimization Act has on the First Amendment rights of all Americans. It argues that the law gives courts the power to silence not only criminals, but also journalists.The amicus brief notes that the media have been instrumental in freeing innocent men, as in the case of the documentary The Thin Blue Line. Books and documentaries also led to the release of the West Memphis Three, who were convicted of murder. These investigations would not have been possible without the cooperation of convicted offenders.
The amicus brief also discusses the potential impact of the law on popular culture. The hit podcast Serial from WBEZ about the murder of a Baltimore teen features interviews of Adnan Syed, who is currently in prison for the crime. It could also stop the distribution of the movie Goodfellas because it is based on a book written with the cooperation of a convicted offender.
The brief also argues that many important cultural contributions have been made by people with a criminal record. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, detail the lives of men who spent time in prison. Actor Mark Wahlberg and rapper Jay-Z were convicted of crimes early in their careers and have since starred in dozens of movies and created multiple albums.
The amicus brief, which was written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is available here. It is also signed by the Freedom to Read Foundation and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
The motion for a preliminary injunction in the case, Prison Legal News v. Kane, No. 1:15-0045, will be argued in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on February 26.