Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is set to sign into law a bill critics say will trample the free speech rights of prisoners. Last week, lawmakers openly said they passed the legislation as a way to target one of the state’s most well-known prisoners: journalist and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of killing of a Philadelphia police officer, but has long maintained his innocence. During a late night vote last Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House unanimously approved the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which authorizes the censoring of public addresses of prisoners or former offenders if judges agree that allowing them to speak would cause “mental anguish” to the victim. The measure was introduced after Abu-Jamal delivered a pre-taped commencement address for graduating students at Vermont’s Goddard College earlier this month. We air Abu-Jamal’s response to the bill and speak to Noelle Hanrahan, founder of Prison Radio, which has been recording and distributing Abu-Jamal’s commentaries from prison since 1992.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Pennsylvania, where today Governor Tom Corbett is set to sign into law a bill critics say will trample the free speech rights of prisoners. Last week, lawmakers openly said they passed the bill as a way to target one of the state’s most well-known prisoners: journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was convicted in 1982 of killing of a Philadelphia police officer, has maintained for a long time his innocence. The bill comes as Corbett and other lawmakers face stiff competition as they run for re-election.
AMY GOODMAN: During a late-night vote last Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House unanimously approved the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act,” which authorizes the censoring of public addresses of prisoners or former offenders if judges agree that allowing them to speak would cause “mental anguish” to the victim. The measure was introduced after Mumia Abu-Jamal delivered a pretaped commencement address for graduating students at Vermont’s Goddard College earlier this month. The speech was opposed by the widow of Daniel Faulkner, the police officer whom Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett expressed his support earlier this month for the new law that could prevent similar speeches in the future.
GOV. TOM CORBETT: While law-abiding citizens are entitled to an array of rights, from free travel to free speech, convicted felons in prison are in prison because they abused and surrendered their rights. And nobody has a right to continually taunt the victims of their violent crimes in the public square.
AARON MATÉ: The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has criticized the new Pennsylvania measure, calling it, quote, “overbroad and vague,” and unable to “pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.” But that has not stopped Governor Corbett from saying he will sign [it into law] this afternoon.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke with Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio Project about the passage of the so-called Revictimization Relief Act, in what could be one of his final media interviews for some time.
MUMIA ABU–JAMAL: It’s amazing, when you think about it, because—on two fronts, I should say. Of course, the first front is constitutional. I mean, this is a blatant, naked violation of Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which specifically grants the right of free speech to all people in the commonwealth, and, of course, the Constitution of the United States, which fairly recently, in the Snyder v. Phelps case—you remember? The preacher who went around to funerals? Well, he caused, I think, a great deal of emotional distress to veterans’ families. This is what the U.S. Supreme Court said in Snyder. They said that the First Amendment trumps emotional distress. That’s recently, and that was an eight-to-one decision. Look it up. But what’s more important to me is this, that during their discussions, right?—that I’ve heard about; I didn’t hear it, I don’t have access to a computer—members of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania said they did not hear the speech, did not know what the speech was, but, in any event, it was for a judge to determine whether it was unconstitutional. These are people who took an oath of office to protect and defend and uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Constitution of the United States blatantly acting unconstitutionally in office. That’s one point.
Here’s the second point. This is theoretically or reportedly based on emotional distress. Think about being a student at Goddard College when police, by the hundreds and—and threatening these students at their graduation with rape, murder, assault, attacks. These are police writing emails, calling on phones, threatening administrators and students. How about their emotional distress? And all they wanted was to hear from one of their alumni. I went to that college. I’m a part of that college. I spent years at that college as a student. And when I went back and graduated, I am a part of that college forever. And they wanted to hear from me. They called and asked and wrote to me and said they wanted to hear from me. So, I think those things should be a part of your considerations.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking from prison in a phone interview recorded Monday by our guest, Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, who we’ll talk to in a moment. This is another clip from their conversation, when Mumia Abu-Jamal expresses concern that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett would sign the so-called Revictimization Relief Act in order to benefit politically.
MUMIA ABU–JAMAL: The press ignores prisoners, as a rule. Most of what happens in prisons are never or rarely reported in the press. I would say this. If you wish, read Live from Death Row, and find out—this book that was written years ago—find out how true it was, how accurate it was, how many of the states that began this hellacious mass incarceration are now decarcerating because their budgets are busted.
You know, we’re talking about a bill—again, let me kind of rephrase this—this is a bill that is signed into law by unconstitutional Tom Corbett, probably the least popular governor—Republican governor, I might add—in the United States, who is facing a virtually unknown opponent who has 20 to 25 points on him, right? At last count. This is a political stunt by a failing politician who is seeking support by using fear. Right? Politicians do it all the time. But this is unconstitutional Tom’s latest attempt to stroke and build up his political campaign, his failing political campaign.
When you asked about the press, for most of the press, prisons don’t exist, right? Silence reigns in states all across the United States. But I went to court. I was forced to go to court by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And I won, in a case called Abu-Jamal v. Price, which gives me the right to write. Now they’re trying to take away my right to read my own writings. How unconstitutional is that?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mumia Abu-Jamal in what could be one of his final media interviews for some time. He was a resident on Pennsylvania’s death row for 29 years before his sentence was overturned in 2011, award-winning journalist whose writing from his prison cell has reached a worldwide audience both through Prison Radio commentaries and through his nine books. We had hoped to have him on with us today. That interview was recorded by Noelle Hanrahan yesterday. But though it was all set up, we have not been able to reach him yet. He would have to call us. We’re joined, though, now in Philadelphia by Noelle Hanrahan, the investigative journalist and founder and producer of Prison Radio, which has been recording and distributing Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commentaries from prison since 1992, for more than 20 years.
The significance of what we expect Governor Corbett to do today, Noelle Hanrahan, and what it means not only for Mumia Abu-Jamal, but for prisoners around the state?
NOELLE HANRAHAN: This is about Mumia Abu-Jamal, but it’s really about all prisoners and what the journalists have to know from inside prisons. Our society really has this incredible incarceration addiction. And we need to know, as journalists, what’s going on inside. So it affects Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, a juvenile lifer who’s in Pennsylvania. It affects Bryant Arroyo, who’s a jailhouse environmentalist and lawyer inside Frackville prison in Pennsylvania. It affects our ability as a community to get the information that we need to make decisions.
And as you know, around Mumia’s case, he’s been censored before. Mumia was one of the main ways in which the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections shut down prisons to journalists. Prisoners cannot have visits by journalists with cameras and equipment. They can only have in-person visits not even with a paper and a pencil. So this is another attempt for the Fraternal Order of Police and the Department of Corrections and Tom Corbett to really silence what we, as a community, need to know and the information we need to get as journalists, and the voices and the First Amendment rights of prisoners.
AARON MATÉ: Noelle, this bill is framed as one that’s protecting the rights of victims, but your response to that? And on the issue of the First Amendment, which you raise, is there a plan for a legal challenge?
NOELLE HANRAHAN: I think that the Fraternal Order of Police is motivating this bill and that Corbett is using it for political advantage. But also, this is not about crime victims. It’s really about reframing the narrative that the Fraternal Order of Police need to reframe. So it’s shifting the narrative after the wake of Ferguson—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
NOELLE HANRAHAN: —to really pose them as the victims, when we all know, many of the people who deal with the criminal justice system, hey, one in 46 people in this country are going to do jail time and prison time, one in three black men. It’s really killing black men. It’s really affecting our culture. We spend more money on preschools—more money on prisons than preschools. So, it’s reframing it in their way.
AMY GOODMAN: Noelle Hanrahan, we’re going to have to leave it there, investigative journalist with Prison Radio. That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking in Purchase tonight.