The Pennsylvania House of Representatives today passed legislation to allow judges to censor public speech by inmates and former offenders before it occurs. The legislation allows a district attorney, the Attorney General, or a crime victim to file a complaint in civil court against an inmate or former offender if the conduct would cause “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish” to the victim.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania described the bill as “overbroad and vague.”

“This bill is written so broadly that it is unclear what behavior is prohibited,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause ‘mental anguish’ could be banned by a judge.

“That can’t pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.”

The legislation, which was amended into the unrelated Senate Bill 508, originated less than two weeks ago in response to a recorded commencement speech given by Mumia Abu Jamal, who is serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania state prison. In the speech to 20 graduates of Goddard College in Vermont, Abu Jamal made no mention of the crime for which he was convicted, the shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

Senate Bill 508 and its companion, House Bill 2533, are written so broadly that it would compromise protected speech by inmates and former offenders.

“Former offenders regularly speak at press conferences and testify at hearings at the state capitol,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “A Senate committee once included testimony by an inmate via video conferencing. They have intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system that can be helpful to lawmakers and the public.

“That type of advocacy could be chilled by this bill.”

Senate Bill 508 will now return to the Senate where a vote to concur on the House amendments to the bill could occur later today.