Lawyers argue against Pa. law saying it violates convicted felons’ rights

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The Revictimization Relief Act was signed into law by former Gov. Tom Corbett (R) more than five months ago. As a result criminals can be sued if their public speech causes mental anguish to victims of those crimes or their families. “I think the law and the facts are clearly on our side that this is a First Amendment violation,” said David Shapiro who represents Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu Jamal’s case inspired the law. He’s a convicted cop-killer, currently serving a sixty year prison sentence. He gave a prerecorded commencement speech at a college in Vermont in October of 2014. The family of the police officer who he murdered was outraged by the speech as were lawmakers who pushed for the bill’s passage.

“This is a statute that is entirely based on what someones reaction to speech might be. My reaction might very well be different than your reaction and so you can’t have a law, particularly a law about speech, that makes it entirely depended on how people react to what you say,” said Shapiro. The Pa. Attorney General’s office argues the law is meant to target the conduct of a criminal like Abu-Jamal rather than his speech, meaning it doesn’t violate the first amendment. Shapiro doesn’t agree.  It’s quite clear that this is an act aimed at speech. Every legislator that talked about it, made it clear that this was aimed at a graduation speech. That this was designed to shut him and other people up,” said Shapiro.

Noelle Hanrahan, the founder of the Prison Radio Project, also listened to testimony in court. She produces commentaries by prisoners including Abu-Jamal. She said convicts still have rights, namely the ability to speak their minds regardless of who it offends. “I believe that this is a serious threat to prison radio’s ability to tell the public what they need to know about prisons. We are going to continue to record prisoners in Pennsylvania and we will do it by all means necessary because the public needs to know,” said Hanrahan. The judge will review the testimony by both sides and make his decision. It’s unclear when that decision will be made.