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.