PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An outspoken Pennsylvania inmate sued Monday to overturn a recently enacted law the state's governor says curbs criminals from cultivating "obscene celebrity" at the expense of their victims.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, fellow inmates and prisoner-rights groups asked a federal judge to overturn the 3-week-old law, which allows prosecutors or victims to take legal action when an offender's conduct "perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime," including mental anguish.
The prisoners along with Prison Radio, the Human Rights Coalition, and Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal argued that the law violates free speech rights and has a chilling effect on inmates who would otherwise speak out.
State and city officials Monday defended the measure, which won unanimous approval in the Pennsylvania legislature last month after Abu-Jamal, 60, delivered a pre-recorded commencement address Oct. 6 to two-dozen graduates of tiny Goddard College in Vermont.
"We're not trying to silence inmates," Jennifer Storm, the state's victim advocate, said. "We're trying to level the playing field to give crime victims a chance against harm being incurred."
Storm said the law was written broadly to reflect various forms of taunting, intimidation and harassment and that it was "not just about Mumia."
Lawmakers backing the measure, however, tied it directly to Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed the measure into law at an Oct. 21 ceremony on the Philadelphia street where Faulkner was slain and, speaking over the chants of protesters, called Abu-Jamal an "unrepentant cop killer" who has "tested the limits of decency."
"Maureen Faulkner, Danny's wife, has been taunted by the obscene celebrity that her husband's killer has orchestrated from behind bars," the governor said, citing the case as an example of where the law could do some good.
A spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said the law would be "invoked with discretion and interpreted with reason" by the state's courts. The law says a judge can issue an injunction blocking what the court has deemed the convict's offending actions.
"At this point, the ink is barely dry, and no defendant can claim that his rights have been violated," Williams' spokeswoman, Tasha Jamerson, said. "The only people who have been harmed up to now are the Faulkners and the many others who have been victimized by these convicted criminals."
Abu-Jamal drew international support in the decades since his conviction with claims — repeated in weekly radio commentaries and books including "Live From Death Row" and "All Things Censored" — that he is the victim of a racist justice system.
He attended Goddard in Plainfield, Vermont, briefly in the 1970s and studied remotely through the institution from prison. He told graduates to "think about the myriad of problems that beset this land and strive to make it better" but did not mention Faulkner or the shooting in his taped speech.