Backers of a Pennsylvania law struck down by a federal judge who said it would trample on free speech rights say they’re hoping for a re-do.
The overturned law would have let victims and their families ask a judge to make offenders stop any behavior that causes mental anguish. Opponents blasted it as baldly unconstitutional, and U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner agreed, calling it the “embodiment of content-based regulation of speech.”
The measure’s main sponsor, Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said he would revise the proposal and push it again if the state attorney general’s office doesn’t appeal the ruling.
Jennifer Storm, the state Victim Advocate, said it’s worth another try.
“There should be some way, civilly, that that victim can go to the court and say, ‘This is what’s happening, I just want this conduct to cease,'” said Storm.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for the state House Republicans, said the crucial piece of the law left judges with the power to stop an offender’s speech or actions based on the mental anguish of a victim.
“In the end, a judge would decide if it had merit,” Miskin said. “Judges make those decisions all the time.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which opposed the law, said existing law already allows people to file a private criminal complaint or a civil action for intentional infliction of emotional distress — provided that the behavior is, among other things, “extreme and outrageous.”
“Their problem is, they refuse to say what they really mean is outrageous,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU-PA. “If it’s really outrageous, you can get at it.”
If, however, someone’s speech is the offensive behavior, Walczak said, “there’s no law that’s going to shut that down, because it’s constitutionally protected.”
The “mental anguish” law itself stemmed from a recorded speech given at a college commencement ceremony by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. The officer’s widow condemned the speech.
The proposal had unanimous support in the House last fall and passed easily in the Senate.