Monday, January 26, 2015

New law threatens reporter-source relationship

Pennsylvania’s “Silencing Act,” passed in latest Mumia backlash, faces court challenge from journalists

DETROIT, MI — Why should journalists care about a new Pennsylvania law that limits the speech of people convicted of violent crimes? Because it could discourage valuable sources from talking to reporters—and might even block or penalize journalists for doing their work.

That’s the case made by a lawsuit filed this month by a coalition of advocacy groups, inmates, journalists, and media organizations. Philadelphia’s City PaperPrison Legal News, and Solitary Watch are among the plaintiffs, along with individual journalists like City Paper’s Daniel Denvir and the freelance writer Christopher Moraff, who often cover criminal justice stories.

“For us, it was a no-brainer,” said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. “Probably 95 percent of our content is written by prisoners and former prisoners.”

That includes longtime columnist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the prison activist who was convicted for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer and is now serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania. It was recorded graduation speech by Abu-Jamal, delivered at Goddard College in Vermont last fall, that inspired the new law. The college announced Abu-Jamal—a former Goddard student— as a speaker on Sept. 29. The speech was delivered on Oct. 5. The Revictimization Relief Act—rebranded the “Silencing Act” by critics—was introduced by state Rep. Mike Vereb on Oct. 2. It sailed easily through Pennsylvania’s legislature, passing 15 days after its introduction with no changes to the text. Former Gov. Tom Corbett signed it into law on Oct. 21. Abu-Jamal and other prison activists filed a separate suit soon after.


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