The law lets victims of a crime file a civil injunction to stop actions by an offender that create "severe mental anguish."
It was introduced by Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) in response to a pre-recorded commencement speech by convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal being played at Goddard College in Vermont in October.
The law, which Abu-Jamal dubbed the “Muzzle Mumia Act” in a statement from his prison cell, was signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on Oct. 21. Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence for murdering Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
The suit was filed in federal court against Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pepper Hamilton law firm.
Plaintiffs say the law, which is called the "Silencing act" in their suit, violates the First Amendment and could let a publication be sued for damages.
“The law is frighteningly vague and pathetically tailored to scapegoat criminal offenders in an effort to bolster politicians' law-and-order bona fides,” Denvir wrote in a column posted online today, entitled “Why I filed a federal lawsuit to defend criminals' free speech rights."
Denvir points out that a term like “mental anguish” could include quoting a convicted criminal about prison conditions, or the “Philadelphia Eagles' roster.”
Co-plaintiffs in the suit include inmates Steven Blackburn, Wayne Jacobs, Edwin Desamour, William Cobb, who were convicted in Philadelphia, journalist Christopher Moraff, Upenn Professor Regina Austin, who works with the incarcerated, and Prison Legal News, Pennsylvania Prison Society, and Solitary Watch, which feature content from inmates.
All plaintiffs say "rely on and publish speech by individuals convicted of personal injury crimes," the suit says.
Kane and Vereb did not respond to requests for comment on the suit.
BJ Graham-Rubin, chief of the Civil Litigation unit at the Philadelphia D.A.'s office, said that the lawsuit should not be filed against their office.
"This lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a state statute, which will be defended by the Attorney General's Office. The District Attorney has not invoked the statute and is not an appropriate party in this litigation," Rubin said in an email.
No action in Pennsylvania have been reported filed under the new law yet.
“While we are sympathetic to the feelings of all victims of crime, we must vigorously oppose this law because it could clearly have a chilling effect on our ability to interview current and former prisoners. These interviews are fundamental to our coverage of criminal-justice issues,” said Lillian Swanson, editor in chief of City Paper, in a piece on the suit by City Paper staff.
Read the complaint, posted online by The Philly Declaration, which also reported on the suit, here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/252055600/Complaint-re-Silencing-Act
Another lawsuit was previously filed to declare the law unconstitutional Nov. 10 by the Amistad Law Project and Abolitionist Law Center on behalf of plaintiffs including Abu-Jamal, the Human Rights Coalition, and Prison Radio, which posts Abu-Jamal's recordings on the internet.