VIDEO: Extended Interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal on New Pennsylvania Law Restricting Prisoners' Speech

October 24, 2014
Web Exclusive

In an extended interview conducted over the phone from SCI Mahanoy Prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania, journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal responds to a new Pennsylvania law that 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.

Critics say the "Revictimization Relief Act," passed on October 21, will trample the free speech rights of prisoners. It was introduced after 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. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has criticized the new Pennsylvania measure, calling it "overbroad and vague," and unable to "pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment."

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Pennsylvania, where Republican Governor Tom Corbett has just signed into law a bill critics say will trample the free speech rights of prisoners. The Revictimization Relief Act, as it’s called, 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 introduced after one of the state’s most famous prisoners, journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, delivered a pretaped commencement address for graduating students at Vermont’s Goddard College earlier this month, the speech opposed by the widow of Daniel Faulkner, the police officer whom Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has criticized the new Pennsylvania measure, calling it "overbroad and vague" unable to "pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment."

Mumia Abu-Jamal joins us now on the phone from SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, Pennsylvania.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, welcome to Democracy Now!

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: How are you, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you. Can you talk about where you are right now? Describe your surroundings, as you speak on the phone to us.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I am right now, as you hear in the background, in the open area of half of a block on B Block in Mahanoy. There are about 45 men sitting around playing cards, playing dominoes, playing chess, talking, some reading, some watching television at a distant corner. This is population, at least the block-in phase, or block-out phase, where you’re out of your cell.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you are back in the news because of a bill that was just signed by Pennsylvania Governor Corbett that would limit your ability to speak, after you just gave a commencement address, a taped commencement address, to Goddard. Can you respond to the signing of this bill?

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I think it’s really quite extraordinary that unconstitutional Tom Corbett, a former attorney general of the state of Pennsylvania, as governor, would sign into law a law that he knows is unconstitutional.

OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy and is subject to monitoring and recording.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Moreover, as a governor and as an attorney, right, and a member of the bar, he had to take a sworn oath for both offices, and that oath was to protect and defend the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Constitution of the United States of America. By signing that bill into law, he has violated both of his oaths as governor and as an attorney. As I said, he knows what the law is. He knows about Snyder v. Phelps. I’m sure you covered the case of the church that went around to funerals and, let’s say, harassed people’s families. They were burying their veterans, and they would have signs, within earsight and eyesight of the families burying their dead. Well, it went to the Supreme Court, because there was a similar law passed against them. And every court they went into found it a violation of the First Amendment, including the United States Supreme Court, which ruled eight to one that the First Amendment free speech protection shielded these church members from tort liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is something that I know unconstitutional Tom knows about. So, it gives you a sense when these officials, these legislators, these governors, these elected officials, swear on a Bible to uphold their oath and office, and violate it with such—such freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what Governor Corbett said in expressing his support for the new law.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Mumia Abu-Jamal?

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: My response is, he knows that’s ridiculous, both in law and in fact. I’ve never taunted anybody. As you know, as a journalist, I’ve rarely talked about the events of December 9, 1981. I’ve talked about all kinds of other issues. I didn’t talk about that when I was at Goddard. Most of the people who voted for this bill, whether they were legislators or senators or the governor themselves, they never heard that speech. I invite them to hear it and then say that that madness that Tom said—I called him unconstitutional. Here’s proof of that. Again, the United States Supreme Court, in Simon & Schuster v. New York Crime Victims Board, held the acts of that state agency, and the legislation that enabled them, unconstitutional. And this was, I believe, the full court, ’91. This was in 1991. In my own civil history, you remember me calling you and them coming up and pulling a wire out of the wall.

AMY GOODMAN: Who pulled that wire out of the wall?

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: It was a guard. I was talking to you. I believe it was '96, or around that time. We were having a discussion. It was live. And all of a sudden, the phone went dead. And I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a correctional officer walk down to where my line was plugged into the wall, and he pulled it out. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. You know, I was like, "Hello, Amy? Hello?" because it just didn’t make sense, to me, that he did that. He did that. But, of course, that was shortly after the publication of Live from Death Row, and the Department of Corrections sanctioned me, gave me a write-up, and we went to court about it. The case is preserved as Abu-Jamal v. Price. In that ruling, the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals said I have a constitutional right to write. If I have a constitutional right to write under the First Amendment, then don’t I have a constitutional right to read writings?

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Maureen Faulkner is quoted in the paper, after Governor Corbett signed the bill, what’s being called the Mumia bill, saying, "To be in your car, driving along in California, only to hear him doing a commencement speech on the radio, it rips open a scab."

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I feel sorry for her, because, you know, when most people hear things that disturbs them, they change the channel, you know, and she could change the channel. They wrote a bill, right, for one man, and they admit that, I’m told, in their discussions in committee. They wrote a bill based on a false reporting of what was discussed at a school that I am a alumni of. I attended and graduated from that college. I was invited by the staff and the students and the administrators to talk to my college about what it meant to get an education from Goddard. I did that. And if the Constitution doesn’t protect that, then it protects nothing. If the Constitution can be used against one, it can be used against all. I didn’t take an oath or an affirmation to support, protect and defend the Constitution of Pennsylvania or the United States. I don’t have to. But of the many people who did, they know they are violating it by signing this law.

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia, Debo Adegbile was nominated to be the head of the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, but because of the case he was involved with at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a case that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought and won, he was barred, senators citing your name. Explain what happened and your response to it.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I can’t really explain what happened, because—

OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy and is subject to monitoring and recording

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: —the truth of the matter is, I never met the man. I never discussed anything with the man, because I never met the man. He was actually acting head of the NAACP LDF after John Payton had died. And he was placed there so—because he was acting head, he was on my brief. Right? But, you know, he never argued a case. We never—I don’t know the man. I saw him in the newspapers. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t recognize his name, because, you know, I knew lawyers that I knew. I didn’t know him. And I had never heard the name until it got into the papers. This is a man who had his life shredded because of the money and power of the FOP to buy and intimidate those people to do their bidding—and to violate, again, their oaths. You can say he didn’t have a constitutional right to become the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, but he was the choice of the president, and I presume he had good reasons to choose him. But to use my case to deny him that opportunity is a tragedy to this man and to his family. And it’s based on lies. Again, I never met the man. I don’t know who he is, other than seeing him on TV or in a newspaper. And, you know, from what I’ve been told and what I’ve heard, this was a fine and distinguished lawyer who came from an impoverished background, fought hard to get into college, fought very hard to get into law school, and devoted his expertise as a lawyer to help people vote and to work for people’s civil rights all across the country. You know, [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, I know we only have a few minutes left before your phone will cut off, with the 15-minute limit, but I wanted to ask you about what it’s been like to move from death row to the general population.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, there’s not a day go by that I don’t think about the brothers and sisters—because there are women in Pennsylvania on death row—the brothers and sisters who are still on death row. And this is so profoundly different from their 24-hour experience that it’s hard to connect the two.

Let me leave you with this. There’s a case out of the Eastern District of Virginia called Prieto v.—and I can’t remember the name of the warden, but it’s P-R-I-E-T-O [Prieto v. Clarke]. In the Prieto case, the court in Virginia ruled that the conditions of death row were unconstitutional. Right? They ruled that locking—

OPERATOR: You have 60 seconds remaining.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Locking people up that long, holding them in confinement, just because they have a death sentence, is a violation of the Constitution. I wish that Pennsylvania would live up to the Constitution, not just in my case, but in Prieto and all the men and women who are on death row in Pennsylvania who should be in general population like everybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: You write many commentaries, among them, about war. What is it like to watch war from your jail cell?

OPERATOR: You have 30 seconds remaining.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: It’s not that much different than it is—it’s horrifying and terrifying, and it speaks to me of the kind of impending destruction of the empire. You can’t bomb people to peace; you can only bomb them to death and to war. And, you know, it’s painful. It’s terrifying. It’s all of those things. And it could be better.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was speaking to us on the phone from SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, Pennsylvania, where he is imprisoned for the rest of his life. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.


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