Trial Held on Constitutionality of the Silencing Act

For Immediate Release: March 31, 2015

Attn: News Desk

Abu-Jamal v. Kane and Prison Legal News v. Kane, the two lawsuits challenging the Silencing Act, were before Chief Judge Conner in the Middle District of Pennsylvania on March 30th.

Amistad Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center are representing Mumia Abu-Jamal, Prison Radio, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, Robert Saleem Holbrook, Donnell Palmer, Anthony Chance, and Human Rights Coalition in the lawsuit against Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams that was filed in November 2014.

The Silencing Act was signed into law in October 2014 by former Governor Tom Corbett following a commencement speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal. This law allows the Attorney General, county District Attorneys, and victims of personal injury crimes to bring lawsuits in civil court against a person convicted of a 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”.

Critics of the law have brought attention to the possibility of self-censorship by people with personal injury convictions to try to prevent lawsuits from being entered against them. “The Silencing Act should be called the “Shut Up Act!” I speak and write with the hope of deterring at-risk youth from becoming another me; this law destroys that hope,” said Donnell Palmer, a plaintiff in Abu-Jamal v. Kane and an incarcerated writer and advocate working to keep young people out of prison.

Plaintiffs in Abu-Jamal v. Kane filed a motion for preliminary injunction on the same day Prison Legal News v. Kane, naming Attorney General Kane and District Attorney Williams as defendants, was filed in January 2015 with its own motion for a preliminary injunction. Both cases were before Chief Judge Conner in late February for a hearing on defendants’ motions to dismiss. Judge Conner dismissed District Attorney Seth Williams from both lawsuits on March 7th based on his explicit disavowal of enforcement, a promise to not bring a lawsuit under the Act, until there is a determination of the Act’s constitutionality. District Attorney Williams had publicly supported the law before its passage.

The hearing on March 30th was a trial on the merits, meaning that the judge’s ruling will be on the constitutionality of the Act. Following the hearing, attorneys for the plaintiffs felt positively about their chances for success. "Many court challenges on First Amendment grounds hinge on one basis for a law's unconstitutionality," said Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center. "However, the Silencing Act is plainly a violation of the First Amendment for several reasons, and we think we presented those reasons to the judge well."

“We are committed to fighting for the world we want to live in—one where people are not forever judged and measured by their mistakes and shortcomings but one where people who have been transformed after causing harm are the ones who can explain in a way that others cannot what the root causes of violence are and how to make our communities safer,” said Ashley Henderson, Legal Director of the Amistad Law Project.