Prison Legal News v. Kane

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, 2015


Summary

In April 2015, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Christopher Conner held unconstitutional a Pennsylvania law that allowed a victim to sue a convicted offender to stop any conduct — including speech — that causes the victim “mental anguish.”

History

Pennsylvania enacts S.B. 508

On October 21, 2014, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 508 into law. It allowed a victim of a personal injury crime to bring a civil action against any offender to obtain injunctive relief for “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.”

Media Coalition raised concerns during the legislative process that the bill is an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech. It would allow victims to file a lawsuit to stop a convicted offender from talking to a journalist, author or filmmaker, significantly inhibiting the ability to produce books, movies and other media. It would also allow a court to block the distribution of media created by the offender.

See legislation page for S.B. 508 »

Two lawsuits filed

On January 8, 2015, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania challenging the law. The plaintiffs are Prison Legal News; Philadelphia City Paper; Pennsylvania Prison Society; Solitary Watch; journalists Daniel Denvir and Christopher Moraff; University of Pennsylvania Professor Regina Austin; and four men who were formerly incarcerated — Steven Blackburn, Wayne Jacobs, Edwin Desamour and William Cobb.

It was the second lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the law. In November 2014, the Abolitionist Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal, Robert Holbrook and Kerry Marshall, all of whom currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania; Prison Radio; Human Rights Coalition; and Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Amicus brief

On February 17, 2015, Media Coalition members the American Booksellers for Free Expression and the Freedom to Read Foundation filed an amicus brief [2] in support of the plaintiffs in Prison Legal News v. Kane. The amicus brief urges the U.S. District Court to block enforcement of the law because it is an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

The amicus brief argues that the law is unconstitutional because it allows a judge to issue an injunction barring the distribution of a broad variety of First Amendment-protected material. The law could stop the distribution of any work created with the cooperation of a convicted offender, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song or Goodfellas, based on the book Wiseguy. The widely popular podcast Serial about the murder of a Baltimore teen featured interviews of Adnan Syed, who is currently in prison for the crime.

Furthermore, many important cultural contributions have been made by someone with a criminal record. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s autobiography The Sixteenth Round both detail lives of men who spent time in prison. Actor Mark Wahlberg and rapper Jay-Z were both convicted of crimes early in their careers and have since starred in dozens of movies and created multiple albums.

In some cases, the media has been instrumental in freeing innocent men from prison, as in the case of the documentary The Thin Blue Line or the books and documentaries about the West Memphis Three. None of these would have been possible without the cooperation of convicted offenders.

The amicus brief is signed by the American Booksellers for Free Expression, Freedom to Read Foundation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Ruling

On March 30, 2015, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Christopher Conner heard arguments on the motion for preliminary injunction in both Prison Legal News v. Kane and the related Abu-Jamal v. Kane.

On April 28, 2015, Judge Conner struck down [1] the Pennsylvania law, finding it “manifestly unconstitutional.” Conner ruled that the law is an impermissible content-based restriction and that it is vague and overbroad.

“A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender’s constitutional right to free expression,” Conner wrote. “The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate, and its enduring guarantee of freedom of speech subsumes the right to expressive conduct that some may find offensive.”


Last updated: Sep 25, 2015