Mumia Makes Us Crazy

He's a bad man. We shouldn't shred the First Amendment because of him.

Let’s concede a few things about Mumia Abu-Jamal right off the top: He’s a bad man. A convicted, apparently unrepentant cop killer. A poseur surrounded by a cult of feeble-minded radical chic. He’s not a man who reasonably deserves to be, say, the commencement speaker at your local college.

But so often, the people who hate him most make everything much worse.

Such is the case with Abu-Jamal’s recent commencement speech to grads at Vermont’s Goddard College, a hippie-dippie sort of place that places a high priority on “radical” thinking. (Somebody might suggest to the college that radical thinking is valuable only as far as it seeks and advances the truth.) I’m not so sure they got much of that in Mumia’s actual speech, which included lines — “Your job isn’t to ‘get a job’; It’s to make a difference!” — every bit as banal as the grad speeches given by non-cop-killing speakers.

For that bit of puffery, our leaders in Harrisburg want to shred the First Amendment.

This is Senate Bill 508, which Pennsylvania legislators want to use to prevent Mumia from “revictimizing” the family of the man he killed in 1981, Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. It lets a victim of a personal injury crime — or the D.A. in the county where the crime took place — sue an offender “for conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.”

And what kind of “conduct” is that? Anything that “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish” in the crime victim.

Folks: That language is so broad as to be meaningless. It gives Pennsylvania unlimited power to silence Mumia Abu-Jamal for any public utterance whatsoever — and while that might sound like a good idea to you, that’s still a violation of the First Amendment.

“The Legislature is trying to ban speech it doesn’t like, and it just doesn’t have the power to do that,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The bill, he said, is “by and large, Constitutionally impermissible.”

It’s true that inmates lose a lot of their rights when they enter prison — but they don’t lose all of them. A prison can restrict an inmate’s speech only if it’s (reasonably) deemed to be a security issue, Hoover said, or if there’s a direct connection between that speech and the offense that landed them in prison. Otherwise, “Inmates do have some level of speech rights.”

“An offender who is harassing a victim — saying derogatory things about a victim or his family — that’s a little more understandable, and there is civil law that gets at the intentional infliction of emotional harm,” Hoover said. Aside from mentioning his former residence on Death Row, however, Abu-Jamal’s speech at Goddard did no such thing: “He didn’t say anything about the crime for which he was incarcerated and convicted.”

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court touched on the issue back in a 1991 ruling that struck down a New York law that prevented offenders from collecting the proceeds of books they wrote about their crimes. (The case was brought on behalf of Henry Hill, of Goodfellas fame.) While that law and the bill under consideration in Harrisburg were different, the court ruling was quite specific that an inmate cannot be silenced because his speech makes people mad.

The state does not have a legitimate interest, the court said, “in limiting whatever anguish Henry Hill’s victims may suffer from reliving their victimization.”

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, though, seems nonetheless ready to give it the old college try.

“I have no hesitancy in endorsing a change in our crime victims act that provides for injunctive relief on behalf of the victims of violent crime,” Gov. Tom Corbett said this week.

“The time has come to put an end to the desecration of free speech laws by Mumia and anyone else in the Pennsylvania state system who has violently taken the life of another,” added Maureen Faulkner, Daniel’s widow.

Listen: It’s understandable why Abu-Jamal makes people crazy. He is undeservedly celebrated by fringe ideologues — streets are named after him in foreign capitals! And again: He killed a cop, which is an act we (rightly) reserve for particular opprobrium. Maureen Faulkner has my eternal sympathy for having to live with that situation.

But as the Supreme Court pointed out in its 1991 ruling, here’s a partial list of figures who would’ve been silenced if laws like Senate Bill 508 had been in place throughout history: Martin Luther King. Henry David Thoreau. Malcolm X. Saint Augustine. Bertrand Russell. Emma Goldman. Sir Walter Raleigh.

Abu-Jamal doesn’t belong on that list — not by a long shot. In our attempts to silence him, though, it’s likely we’ll end up gagging people who do belong on that list. Mumia Abu-Jamal already killed a police officer; it would be a misguided act of revenge for us to wound our First Amendment in return.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.