Philadelphia, PA – Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has signed the Revictimization Relief Act, or the “Silence Mumia Bill,” in Philadelphia near the site where police officer Daniel Faulkner, whom Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, was shot in 1981. Faulkner’s widow spoke at the signing ceremony. The law allows a district attorney, the Attorney General, or a crime victim to file a complaint in civil court against an inmate or former offender if the conduct would cause “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish” to the victim. Civil libertarians say the bill is unconstitutional.
“This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what behavior is prohibited,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause ‘mental anguish’ could be banned by a judge. “That can’t pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.”
It’s an occupational hazard for politicians: succumbing to the temptation to do something, anything, to get on the popular side of a public controversy, even if that means enacting an unconstitutional law. The latest example – one that we hope other states don’t rush to replicate – is a Pennsylvania law allowing victims of any “personal injury crime” to sue convicted criminals for conduct that “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime.”
The so-called Revictimization Relief Act is a response to outrage in Pennsylvania over a prerecorded speech delivered to graduates of Goddard College in Vermont by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is in prison for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Faulkner’s widow joined Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday when the governor, who is seeking reelection, signed the bill.
Abu-Jamal long has been lionized by some on the political left who see him as a victim of a racist judicial system, despite the fact that the courts have upheld his conviction (though his original death sentence was reduced to life in prison).
In his speech, Abu-Jamal didn’t insist on his innocence or even refer to the crime, except to note that when he resumed his studies he was “a man on death row.” Instead, his speech combined reminiscences of Goddard and commentary on current events, from the war in Gaza to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Even so, it’s perfectly understandable that Faulkner’s friends and family would be appalled that Goddard gave Abu-Jamal a platform. Pennsylvania politicians had every right to associate themselves with that outrage. But they abused their power when they passed the Revictimization Relief Act.
The law is replete with constitutional problems. One is vagueness; it defines as a “continuing effect of the crime” any conduct by a convicted criminal that “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish” in a victim. And if “conduct” can include a relatively innocuous commencement address, the law runs afoul of precedents banning the prior restraint of speech. As Andy Hoover of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania rightly put it: “The Legislature doesn’t have the power to punish speech it doesn’t like.”
Politicians often criticize the courts for invalidating laws passed by the people’s representatives. That wouldn’t happen nearly so often if legislators and governors took seriously their own oaths to uphold the Constitution. Instead, as in this case, they do the popular thing and leave the courts to clean up after them.