Court Strikes Down Anti-Mumia Law

But legislative leaders say appeal may be in the works.

A federal judge has struck down a new state law that attempted to keep convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal and other Pennsylvania prisoners from having their voices heard by the outside world.

The law, passed in the wake of Abu-Jamal’s October commencement speech to students at Goddard College in Vermont, lets crime victims — or prosecutors — sue inmates whose behavior behind bars continues to create anguish for the victims. But a federal court says the law violates the First Amendment rights of Abu-Jamal and other prisoners.

“The fact that certain plaintiffs have been convicted of infamous or violent crimes is largely irrelevant to our First Amendment analysis. A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender’s constitutional right to free expression,” Judge Christopher Conner wrote. “The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate.” (See the full opinion below.)

PennLive reports:

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House GOP leadership, said Conner’s ruling is “woefully short of the facts.”

“It begs the question, Did he even read the law,” Miskin said. “The point of the law was to look out for victims.”

He said Rep. Mike Vereb, the Montgomery County Republic and former police officer who was a prime sponsor of the act, will contact the attorney general’s office about appealing Conner’s decision. Miskin said the law was crafted on a foundation of prior legislation that had withstood constitutional challenges.

AP adds:

Rep. Mike Vereb, a suburban Philadelphia Republican who sponsored the law, said that if an appeal is not taken he plans to push for an amended version of the law in the Legislature.

“It wasn’t suppressing speech, it was suppressing harassment and revictimization of our victims,” Vereb said. “This is the first ring of the bell in this fight. The victims need fighters, we’re fighters.”

The Inquirer:

Bret Grote, an attorney for Abu-Jamal, said: “Before his law was enacted, I was determined to work with Mumia and others in prison to bring a case that would wipe it off the books as soon as possible. And we’re pleased that day has come.”

Attorney Eli Segal with the law firm Pepper Hamilton, which along with the ACLU brought the other suit, wrote in an e-mail that the decision “says loud and clear that all of us in this commonwealth have the right to freedom of speech.”