Don’t Silence Mumia

Last year, the State of Pennsylvania passed the Revictimization Relief Act, a bill designed to allow crime victims to sue if criminals engage in speech that causes them mental anguish. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what the law is about is to look at why it was passed: Mumia Abu-Jamal had given the commencement address at Goddard College. He gave this via videotape because Abu-Jamal is in prison for the murder of Daniel Faulkner. And Faulkner’s family is getting a little tired of seeing his murderer bruited about as some great public intellectual.

Let’s get one thing straight: I think Mumia is guilty as hell. Faulkner was shot by a gun consistent with Mumia’s revolver, which had fired five shots and was found next to him. Mumia was himself shot by Faulkner. Four witnesses placed him at the scene. To believe Mumia is innocent, you have to believe … actually, I’m not sure what you have to believe because the theories of his innocence make no sense and Mumia has not given a consistent account of what happened. Maybe a one-armed man ran in, grabbed Mumia’s gun, shot the cop and left.

The protestations of his innocence revolve around him being an intellectual and a supposedly peaceful man. That’s as maybe but anyone is capable of murder. We don’t convict people of murder because they’re the kind of people who would probably kill someone and we don’t acquit because it’s, like, totally not like them to gun down a cop. I tend to focus my attention on the evidence, which was and is damning.

I also have little time for Mumia’s supporters. It’s not just that they lavish praise and support on him (and, in some cases abuse on Faulkner’s widow and accusations of corruption against Faulkner). It’s that they do so while ignoring the hundreds of innocent people who have languished in prison and on death row for decades but aren’t celebrities.

That all having been said, the Pennsylvania law crosses me as blatantly unconstitutional. And it was struck down by a federal court this week. Volokh and Randazza have a breakdown of the decision. Bottom line:

First Amendment protection extends to convicted felons. The Act is in violation of the First Amendment as it is content based, overbroad, and vague in its coverage of “offenders” and speech “conduct.” Victims have other forms of redress and can use their own free speech to combat that of inmates.

Call Mumia a murderer. I’ll do that right now: he’s a murderer. Call the school that invited him to do their commencement idiots. I’ll do that, too: they’re idiots. But restraint of his speech and those who want to promote his speech is wrong and unconstitutional. As we like to say, it’s the speech you hate that needs the most protection.

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  1. richtaylor365

    Before I go into my reasons why I think your entire premise is wrong, a few questions;

    1) You do realize that there are constitutionally mandated exceptions to  free speech (I’m sure you know what they are) so this freedom is not “unlimited”

    2) What about the concept that incarceration involves the abrogation of certain freedoms (or self inflicted waiver by way of breaking the law) as just and necessary? You don’t get to exercise your 2nd Amendment rights in prison, your very movements are restricted, you have zero 4th Amendment protections behind bars, why is limitations on speech any different?

    3) What do you think of the Son Of Sam Law? Do you think this is unconstitutional as well?

     

    I will grant you that there is some needless ambiguity in this law (I believe Madison intentionally baked ambiguity into the cake of The Bill of Rights, by design) but this has more to do with definitions and wording, not the intended purpose.

    The whole point of prison was to remove the offender from society, the offender and his noxious words, out of site out of mind. Faulkner’s widow (or the families of any other murder victims) do not need to be subjected to lies from the murderer, they deserve protections, not the murderers.

     

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  2. richtaylor365

    Another 1st Amendment exception I just thought of was that new law that kept those crazy Westboro bigots away from military funerals, or do you think they have a perfect right to assemble and protest (with their insulting hateful signs) any damn place they want?

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  3. Hal_10000 *

    Son of Sam law is different. It keeps criminals from profiting off of their crimes by selling their stories.  I have no problem with that. The Pennsylvania law, as the court noted, is broad-based restriction of speech based on content. Courts have upheld restraint on the civil liberties of prisoners based on the state showing a compelling need (e.g., prisoners should not be allowed to have guns).  Preventing people’s feelings from being hurt by a speech given at a college is not a compelling need of the state (the Court noted that a law restricting harassment would be constitutional).  Even the State of Pennsylvania admitted you can not a priori restrict the free speech rights of prisoners. They tried to weasel around it by getting speech redefined as “conduct” and the Court wasn’t buying it.

    As for Westboro, the Court specifically held (8-1) that they can protest in public spaces, such as the sidewalk near a funeral. They are not allowed to trespass onto private spaces.

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  4. richtaylor365

    Son of Sam law is different.

    Not really, how hard would it be to make an argument that restricting remuneration for speech is a limitation of that  same speech?

      Preventing people’s feelings from being hurt by a speech given at a college is not a compelling need of the state

    Is that what you think this law is about, hurt feelings?

    As for Westboro, the Court specifically held (8-1) that they can protest in public spaces, such as the sidewalk near a funeral. They are not allowed to trespass onto private spaces.

    This law limited Westboro protesters to that outside 300 feet of military funerals (even on public property) and prohibited 2 hours before and after the service. Telling folks when and where they can protest goes to the very heart of the first amendment, yet, here is a law restricting it. Come on, Hal, you can do better than this.

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  5. Hal_10000 *

    Not really, how hard would it be to make an argument that restricting remuneration for speech is a limitation of that  same speech?

    Very hard. You have a right to free speech.  You don’t have a right to commerce.  The Son of Sam laws don’t prevent criminals from writing memoirs or doing paintings or appearing in documentaries. It prevents them from being paid for it (or, in some cases, using the proceeds to benefit their victims or the society they damaged).

    Telling folks when and where they can protest goes to the very heart of the first amendment, yet, here is a law restricting it. Come on, Hal, you can do better than this.

    Nonsense. It gets to the very heart of what’s wrong with First Amendment law. You can protest anywhere you like (I’m aware that the Courts have upheld free speech zones; the Courts are wrong on this).  If Obama passed a law banning protests on the National Mall, would that be acceptable?  Obviously not.  Where it crosses the line is when you either trespass onto private property or interfere with someone.  This is why the Courts have upheld laws that prevent pro-life protesters from literally preventing women from getting abortions while making sure that the protesters can be as close to the clinic as they want.

    Mumia isn’t interfering with anybody. He’s not going into Faulkner’s house or standing on her lawn. He’s giving a speech to some idiot college students by videotape. He’s not inciting anyone. What quantifiable harm is this causing? You can’t stop someone from speaking because he’s a piece of shit.

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  6. Hal_10000 *

    Is that what you think this law is about, hurt feelings?

    Yes. The law specifically says that.  It does not restrict harassing phone calls or anything like that (which are already illegal). It restricts speech that might cause mental anguish in the victim or their family.

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  7. richtaylor365

    Very hard. You have a right to free speech.  You don’t have a right to commerce.

    Allowing someone to speak while taking the megaphone out of his hand (or not allowing him the use of the megaphone to make his speech public) is limiting his free speech, you really can’t see that? Don’t get my wrong, I like this law, the purpose of this law, but it’s very existence negates your argument to a degree.

    Nonsense. It gets to the very heart of what’s wrong with First Amendment law.

    I’m confused, are you saying that the Westboro bigots should be allowed unfettered access anywhere at anytime?

    And you never answered my question about all the other myriad exceptions to free speech, are all these unconstitutional as well?

    Yes. The law specifically says that. 

    If you honestly can not see the difference between hurt feeling and “mental anguish”, the exact wording in the bill, then I can’t help you.

     

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  8. Hal_10000 *

    nd you never answered my question about all the other myriad exceptions to free speech, are all these unconstitutional as well?

    Can you be specific? There are exceptions to free speech that a lot of people site that don’t exist (e.g., hate speech).

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  9. richtaylor365

    I am talking about the very basic free speech exceptions, clearly you know these, or maybe you don’t. Here is a primer

    What I am trying to figure out is whether you are against all free speech exceptions, or just this one.

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  10. InsipiD

    The sooner he assumes room temperature, the better.  Everything that he does is profiting from his crime.  Do you think that you’d have heard of Mumia Abu-Jamal any other way?

     

    I’m surprised that Obama hasn’t pardoned him.

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  11. Hal_10000 *

    I am talking about the very basic free speech exceptions, clearly you know these, or maybe you don’t. Here is a primer

    OK. Thanks for being specific. No, I don’t have a problem with libel law or laws against incitement or similar things.  As I noted above, harassing behavior is already illegal. So how does Mumia giving a commencement address fall within those boundaries?

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  12. richtaylor365

    I never said this law falls within those boundaries, that is not the point at all. Here’s the deal, over the years the courts have identified various compelling needs to alter or limit certain liberties. In your above comment you agreed that some limitations on free speech are necessary, great. What I’m trying to do is pin you down on why the Westboro law is OK with you (infringing on their fundamental rights of assembly and protest by telling them where and when they can exercise this freedom), and not this law since both are intended to deflect mental anguish for the victims. If anything, this law is on even more secured  sound footing  since the Westboro folks are not incarcerated criminals, where Mumia is, and you admitted above that prisoners are not afforded the same constitutional liberties as those of free citizens.

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  13. Hal_10000 *

    Because the Westboro people are engaged in harassment, trying to directly harm and cause suffering in people. The only way the families could avoid their speech, in the absence of a safe zone, would be to not have a funeral. Harassment is the intent of WBC’s actions. Mumia is giving a speech to some ideology-addled college kids. That’s not harassment. His speech can be avoided by just not listening.

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  14. richtaylor365

    Because the Westboro people are engaged in harassment, trying to directly harm and cause suffering in people.

    No, what they are engaged in peaceful assembly and protest, the direct result of which causes suffering for the victims, same with Mumia.

     His speech can be avoided by just not listening.

    And by that logic the funeral goers could just wear ear plugs and not look at the hateful signs.

     

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  15. Biggie G

    Rich, I think there is a difference.I have never heard one of Mumia’s speeches, but since most of them are used for commencement speeches at lily white liberal arts colleges, I will assume they are pretty bland.  A lot of social justice and fight the racist power structure nonsense.  He probably never mentions the Faulkners or anything related to his case besides bemoaning his plight as a “political prisoner.”    He is only given a platform by some misguided white kids who want to shock their parents, but not enough to cut off the money.  I believe that his opponents outraged by the mere fact that he has a platform no matter what he says.

    On the other hand, the Westboro Baptist Church imposes themselves on people.  If they sat in their compound in Kansas and ranted about sodomites bringing America to ruin, no one would care.  Most people wouldn’t even know they exist.  I also believe that their intent is to incite violence.  They gamble that the people they protest won’t have guns, but might take a swing at them.  Then they can sue and get more publicity.

    I don’t think the state has a compelling interest in the Mumia case.  Their interest in the WBC case is there, but I don’t think the law causes undo harm.

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  16. richtaylor365

    He probably never mentions the Faulkners or anything related to his case besides bemoaning his plight as a “political prisoner.” 

    Maybe, or he could go into something similar to ,”See, it never ends, white America is still oppressing us, the cops kill us with impunity and they get away with it. Black lives matter? To who, not those in power, not those racist pigs. You should all thank me, I killed that white pig before he could kill any of us, he did not deserve to live. They have blood on their hands. The only justice is that which we secure for ourselves”.

    On the other hand, the Westboro Baptist Church imposes themselves on people.

    No doubt, they are vile despicable creatures, and it probably is not fair  for me to lump Mumia in with them since I do not know what he will say, but I am not willing to give him any platform and take that chance.

    The Westboro law was written so that crime victims do not have to suffer beyond what they already endured, it says ,”enough is enough, you deserve some peace, having that peace taken away from you as it had”. I agree with that sentiment.

     If they sat in their compound in Kansas and ranted about sodomites bringing America to ruin, no one would care.  Most people wouldn’t even know they exist. 

    And if Mumia had only his cell walls to listen to his rants, I would not care, but he is given a platform, a megaphone, just like the Westboro mob with their hateful signs.

    Just my opinion, but thanks for the comment Biggie G.

     

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