Writing that Pennsylvania's General Assembly "fell woefully short of the mark," a federal judge on Tuesday struck down a state law that allowed violent-crime victims to sue offenders over speech that causes "mental anguish."
The six-month-old "Revictimization Relief Act" was aimed at quieting the celebrity of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. But the law violated offenders' First Amendment rights and was so broadly worded that it could limit the speech of people professing their innocence, wrote Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner of Pennsylvania's Middle District.
Lawsuits could have been brought against pardon applications or confessions, he added. And the act already had a "chilling effect" on prison newsletters and books being written by inmates.
"However well-intentioned its legislative efforts, the General Assembly fell woefully short of the mark," wrote Conner, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. "The result is a law that is manifestly unconstitutional."
The Pennsylvania legislature fast-tracked the bill in October, just days after Goddard College in Vermont played a speech Abu-Jamal recorded in prison at its commencement. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into law Oct. 21.
Though the speech made no reference to his victim, Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, the college's decision drew the ire of the Fraternal Order of Police and Faulkner's widow, Maureen.
Abu-Jamal and other inmates filed a lawsuit in November. It was combined with another case filed by offenders, advocacy groups, and news organizations.
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."
The law was defended in court by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office. Spokesman Chuck Ardo said the office was reviewing the judge's decision.
State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) authored the act and said he would rewrite it if the attorney general does not appeal.
"Justice isn't just about the criminals and their rights," he said. "It's about the victims and their rights."