How Pennsylvania's 'Silencing Act' Infringes on Prisoners' Freedom of Speech

Human Rights

Imagine if I had no right to publish this article, and you had no right to read it, simply because I’ve been convicted of a crime. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a controversial new law in Pennsylvania says.

Last October, the Pennsylvania state legislature fast-tracked a bill called the Revictimization Relief Act, which targets the free speech of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The bill was passed in reaction to a commencement speech that Mumia Abu-Jamal gave via a recording at his alma mater, Goddard College, and then-governor Tom Corbett signed it in a public ceremony on the streets of Philadelphia. The law allows crime victims, prosecutors or the attorney general to sue anyone with a “personal injury crime” conviction for speaking publicly if they think such speech will create “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish” for the victim.

This law, also known as the “Silencing Act,” will have a chilling effect on prisoner speech in general, but it will have a unique impact on wrongfully convicted prisoners like myself. With the already-strict guidelines and procedures that innocent prisoners have to abide by in our efforts to prove our innocence, this new law sabotages our rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, making it much more difficult for us to advocate for ourselves.

For innocent prisoners, this law means that if we speak out about our cases—whether it’s through a TV or radio interview, an article for a magazine, a letter to the editor, or a blog post online—if the victim’s family doesn’t like it, they can claim we caused them “mental anguish" and bring a lawsuit against us in civil court. The Silencing Act also allows prosecutors and the attorney general to bring such a lawsuit forward without even consulting the victims.

Social media has played an integral part in helping exonerate innocent prisoners. Over 125 of us were freed in 2014. For those of us in Pennsylvania, our chances of advocating successfully for our exoneration will all but evaporate if this law stands. Under the Silencing Act, innocent prisoners could face arbitrary censorship, be forced to pay the other party’s attorney fees, and be targeted for speaking out against the injustice we continue to face. This law is an attempt to silence us from telling the truth about a judicial system that failed us.

The Silencing Act is being challenged by multiple lawsuits filed by Prison Legal News, the Abolitionist Law Center, Prison Radio, Amistad Law Project, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and the Human Rights Coalition, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and numerous prisoners and journalists. The grassroots activist group Decarcerate PA is planning a marathon “Speak-In” protest against the law on May 4, where they will defy the Silencing Act by reading the words of incarcerated people aloud for 24 hours. I encourage everyone to get involved in this fight and speak out concerning how the constitution is not being adhered to in Pennsylvania.

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