Pennsylvania lawmakers expect to pass a bill this week that would allow the courts to muzzle criminal offenders if their behavior causes mental anguish for their victims.
Supporters say the measure carefully skirts infringement on free speech rights, but people on either side of the issue are bracing for a lawsuit, should the bill receive the governor’s signature.
“We know it’s going to be challenged,” said Jennifer Storm, head of the state’s Office of the Victim Advocate. “And not every scenario or situation’s going to be appropriate for this type of relief, but it’s one more tool in the toolboxes for crime victims.”
The revictimization relief language, as it’s called, has been amended into another proposal further along in the legislative approval process. Spokesmen for the majority caucuses in the House and Senate said they expect final passage this week for the measure, which also has Gov. Tom Corbett’s support.
Under the bill, crime victims and their families could file a civil action to put a stop to “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” Such conduct would include behavior causing “mental anguish.” A judge could also grant “other appropriate relief, including reasonable attorney fees and other costs associated with the litigation.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is readying a legal challenge.
“This bill is asking judges to pre-emptively shut down speech,” said spokesman Andy Hoover. “They want judges to shut down speech before it happens and to censor it.”
He said current civil law already gives victims a way to curb emotional distress caused by their offenders, and the state’s criminal code can be used to go after harassment.
“This idea that victims don’t have rights is just inaccurate,” Hoover said. “They do have avenues.”
Lawmakers fast-tracked the revictimization relief measure after Mumia Abu-Jamal, a prison inmate serving a life sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer, gave a recorded commencement address at a Vermont college earlier this month. His speech was condemned by Officer Daniel Faulkner’s widow.