A federal judge Tuesday threw out a Pennsylvania law designed to prevent offenders from causing mental anguish to crime victims, calling it an illegal restriction on the right to free expression.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner ruled against the law that was enacted quickly late last year after Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a recorded commencement address to a small Vermont college. Abu-Jamal is serving life for the 1981 killing of Officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia.
"A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender's constitutional right to free expression," Conner wrote. "The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate, and its enduring guarantee of freedom of speech subsumes the right to expressive conduct that some may find offensive."
He said law was unlawfully purposed, vaguely executed and patently overbroad, and said legislators "fell woefully short of the mark."
The law passed the House unanimously and the Senate by a wide margin, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Tom Corbett in October.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said the law was designed to help victims.
"Basically all this law said was, if somebody feels they're being infringed upon by these actions, they have the right to take it to court," Miskin said.
A lead attorney for the plaintiffs, which included Abu-Jamal, four other prisoners, Prison Legal News and other parties, called the decision a major vindication of the right to engage in public debate on important social questions.
"Much of the speech that is protected as a result of the ruling, and it was at issue in this case, is extremely important speech on matters of public concern," said the lawyer, David M. Shapiro.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office said a decision about any appeal would be made after the ruling was reviewed.
The law let victims seek civil injunctions against offenders who act in ways that perpetuate mental anguish. It was rushed through after Abu-Jamal gave the address on Oct. 5 to Goddard College, which he briefly attended in 1970.