On Tuesday, April 28, a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down the state's "Revictimization Relief Act," agreeing with plaintiffs that it violated the First and Fifth Amendments of the US Constitution.
The law at issue was passed in October 2014, and permitted crime victims to sue convicted offenders to stop "conduct" - including speech - that cause "mental anguish" to the victims. The law was not limited to prisoners - even those completely out of the justice system could be subject to its restrictions. Much of the press surrounding Tuesday's decision focused on controversial prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, whose commencement address at Goddard College last year took place three days before the bill was introduced and was referenced by then-Governor Tom Corbett when he signed the bill into law.
The case is Prison Legal News v. Kane. (Edited to add: the ruling covered another case as well, Mumia Abu Jamal v. Kane.)
In his decision, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Christopher Conner wrote, “A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender’s constitutional right to free expression.” Judge Conner dismissed the state’s argument that the law was a mere regulation of conduct with an incidental impact on speech, and noted that even if that had been the case, the law would still be flawed:
Assuming arguendo that the Act or its history revealed a principal intention to regulate behavior and only an incidental regulation of speech, the court‟s holding would remain unaltered. The Supreme Court has held that when a law “generally functions as a regulation of conduct” it is nonetheless subject to strict scrutiny when “as applied to plaintiffs[,] the conduct triggering coverage under the statute consists of communicating a message.” Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 561 U.S. 1, 27-28 (2012).
As reported in the March edition of FTRF News, the Freedom to Read Foundation filed an amicus brief in the case in February, arguing that allowing judges to issue injunctions in accordance with the law constitutes prior restraint "on a limitless range of speech, including matters of public interest, such as deterring crime, rehabilitation of prisoners, prison conditions, and fundamental issues of justice."
This coming Saturday, the Freedom to Read Foundation will be hosting a reception in Salt Lake City to celebrate the legacy of Emily Wheelock Reed, a librarian who faced tremendous adversity and yet rose above it to defend the freedom to read - and basic human rights.
Joining us will be special guests:
Leah Farrell, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Utah
Kenneth Jones, playwright, Alabama Story
Patricia Polacco, author, In Our Mothers' House (via Skype)
Alberta Comer, Dean of University Libraries, University of Utah
The reception will be part of the #FTRF45 series of events commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Freedom to Read Foundation - of which Reed was a charter member. In fact, the event will take place on the exact 45th anniversary of the first FTRF Board Meeting, at the 1970 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Chicago.
This event is being held in conjunction with the middle weekend of Alabama Story, a new play by Jones, that dramatizes the confrontation between Reed and segregationist legislators in late-1950s Alabama. The play, which has received great reviews (see here and here), puts Reed's story in the context of its times, and asks many questions that are still with us today. You can learn more about Jones' vision in this great podcast by KUER's RadioWest.
In addition to celebrating Reed (who was the recipient of the FTRF Roll of Honor Award in 2000), the reception will highlight work FTRF has done in Utah over the years in protecting free speech, including supporting Jeanne Layton in the 1980s and more recently, librarians in the Davis County Public Schools defending access to In Our Mothers' House.
Tickets are available at www.ftrf.org/event/FTRF45_SLC. Tickets are $25 for the general public, and $20 for FTRF members, Utah Library Association members, and anyone with a ticket to either of the two January 17 performances of Alabama Story. For an additional donation, attendees can reserve a signed copy of In Our Mothers' House and copies of The Rabbits' Wedding, one of the books at the center of the controversy depicted in the play.
Many thanks to the University of Utah Libraries, Quinney Law Library, and the Utah Library Association for their support of this event!
Bonus: Here's Toby Graham, the librarian who brought Reed's story to the attention of FTRF's Roll of Honor Committee, in a video he created that will be shown at the reception.
A final settlement was reached last week in
the Davis County, Utah book removal case. In addition to returning the book In Our Mothers' House unrestricted to school library shelves, the school district agreed not to remove or restrict access to any library books based on Utah's ban on having "instructional materials" that contain "advocacy of homosexuality."
"We received invaluable assistance
from the Freedom to Read Foundation, which helped provide resources for
challenging the restriction and identifying expert witnesses who could testify
about how In Our Mothers' House was
well within the mainstream of children’s literature and that the school’s
decision to restrict access to the book violated bedrock principles of school
The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) is a non-profit legal and educational organization affiliated with the American Library Association (http://www.ala.org/) . FTRF protects and defends the First Amendment to the Constitution and supports the right of libraries to collect - and individuals to access - information.