Our opinion: The Constitution wins

A cooler head has prevailed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Judge Christopher Conner has struck down as unconstitutional a hasty and overly broad piece of legislation passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to cash a political check provided by a short speech by a convicted cop killer.

We commented at the time of its passage last October that knee-jerk legislation very seldom makes good law.

In this case, within days of the brouhaha over Mumia Abu-Jamal’s recorded commencement speech presented to the graduating class of a New England college hardly anyone had ever heard of, the Pennsylvania General Assembly saw its chance to make points with the electorate by capitalizing on the revulsion that Abu-Jamal, who had shot and killed a police officer years before, had made a public statement. The statement had nothing to do with the crime, his guilt or innocence, the victim or the victim’s family. It turned out to be one of those classic be-true-to-yourself commencement speeches.

Nevertheless, it was claimed, any public utterance by Abu-Jamal, or any other convicted criminal, could inflict emotional harm on their victims.

We suggested that the law was overly vague and could abrogate the free speech rights of anyone who was ever convicted of a crime at any time in the past.

Judge Conner recognized the obvious, stating in his ruling: “Indeed, throughout its brief legislative gestation, the law was championed primarily as a device for suppressing offender speech.” Testimony at a legislative hearing on the bill was further evidence of its vague nature. “The attorney general suggests that the term includes even persons who are accused but not yet convicted. It is thus unclear whether an offender includes the accused, the convicted, the exonerated, third parties, or all of the foregoing,” Conner wrote.

We too were repulsed by Goddard College’s selection of a commencement speaker and suggested it may have relied on the theory that any publicity, even bad publicity, is better than obscurity.

We would suggest that if the legislature really wanted to protect crime victims from perpetrators under such circumstances, a much narrower law might be written to describe specific acts. But, of course, there wasn’t time for that. The legislature had to strike while the iron was hot, while the anger was fresh in everyone’s mind. Hence, the broad, vague, lazy and unconstitutional law that resulted, a product for which the Pennsylvania General Assembly is expert.