** Prisoners and Advocacy Groups Win Right to a Trial
This afternoon, Chief Judge for the federal court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Christopher Conner, ruled that Plaintiffs in the cases Abu-Jamal v. Kane and Prison Legal News v. Kane had standing against Attorney General Kane to seek a ruling on the constitutionality of the Silencing Act, a censorship law targeted at Mumia Abu-Jamal and other currently and formerly incarcerated people.
Defendant Seth Williams was dismissed from the case based on his explicit disavowal of enforcing the act until a court of competent jurisdiction rules on the constitutionality of the statute. His dismissal does not hinder Plaintiffs ability to obtain the relief of invalidating this law, as a favorable ruling on the First Amendment issue against Defendant Kane will achieve the same result. Williams’ disavowal of enforcement is a far cry from his political grandstanding in support of this bill’s passage in the fall.
The judge has ordered Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction to be merged with a trial on the merits, meaning that if we win we will be granted a permanent injunction against the statute, and the statue will be invalidated.
“Silencing prisoners is one more way of dehumanizing them,” said Amistad Law Project Policy Director Nikki Grant. “We need the voices of the marginalized to shed light on injustice.”
The trial is set for March 30 in Harrisburg, PA approximately 5 months since former Governor Corbett signed this ill-fated bill into law.
The Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law filed the lawsuit on Nov. 10^th to stop enforcement of the law. The law firms represent Mumia Abu-Jamal, Prison Radio, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, Robert L. Holbrook, Donnell Palmer, Anthony Chance, and Human Rights Coalition.
The Silencing Act, also known as 18 P.S. § 11.1304, allows the Attorney General, county District Attorneys, and victims of personal injury crimes to bring a lawsuit in civil court against the person convicted of the personal injury crime to enjoin conduct that “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim”. The actions that could prompt a lawsuit include “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
“This law is unconstitutional,” said David Shapiro of MacArthur Justice Center. “The facts are on our side and the law is on our side. The Silencing Act targets a huge amount of constitutionally protected speech based on who is speaking.”
After a prerecorded commencement speech by journalist and prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was played for graduates at Goddard College in Vermont, the Pennsylvania legislature passed and outgoing Governor Corbett signed into law the Silencing Act on October 21st, 16 days after the commencement speech.
Abu-Jamal has spent 33 years in prison, 29 of which were in solitary confinement on death row after being convicted at a 1982 trial that Amnesty International said “failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.”
Robert L. Holbrook, who is serving a death by incarceration, life without parole, sentence he received as a child, had this to say about the law: “there are people in prison who will stop writing, stop publishing, stop speaking out because of this law.”