Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ACLU Says Law Silences Free Speech Rights of Prisoners


January 13, 2015 - Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: Attorney Sara Rose with the Pennsylvania ACLU says a new state law tramples the free speech rights of prisoners and former prisoners. Photo courtesy S. Rose.
PHOTO: Attorney Sara Rose with the Pennsylvania ACLU says a new state law tramples the free speech rights of prisoners and former prisoners. Photo courtesy S. Rose.
PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit last week aimed at stopping enforcement of what it calls the "Silencing Act."

Passed by the legislature last year, the act allows prosecutors or victims of a personal injury crime to obtain an injunction to prohibit anyone convicted of such a crime from engaging in any conduct that would cause "mental anguish" to the victim or the victim's family members.

Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the ACLU, says it wasn't hard too see the act's immediate challenges to the First Amendment.

"The broad impact this law could have on the First Amendment rights is significant," she says. "Not only for offenders, but the people who work with them and the people who report on what happens inside of prisons."

The suit was filed on behalf of four former prisoners who are now community leaders, several journalists and media organizations, and a professor who works with prisoners.

Rose notes the impact goes beyond the groups the plaintiffs represent, because the act prevents anyone else from hearing offenders' statements and opinions.

"It violates not just the First Amendment rights of offenders, but also the First Amendment rights of those who wish to hear what they have to say," says Rose.

She adds the law already has gone into effect, but at this point, the ACLU believes no victims or prosecutors have sought an injunction against any offenders.

Rose says a potential financial penalty for prisoners or ex-prisoners who speak out also constrains their right to free speech.

"The law does contain a provision that would allow the court to charge the offender with costs and attorneys fees if the injunction is issued," she says.

The law was aimed at silencing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1982 and is serving a life sentence. He maintains he is innocent.

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