By: Editorial Staff
SIX NATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS of journalists, led by the Society of Professional Journalists, have asked a federal court to order Pennsylvania officials to restore the First Amendment rights of death-row inmate and former broadcast journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
A hearing is expected next week.
Abu-Jamal was convicted in the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia policeman but maintains he’s innocent. Questions surrounding his guilt or innocence, whether he received a fair trial and violations of his free-speech rights have put Abu-Jamal in a media spotlight in recent weeks (E&P, July 22, p. 17).
Abu-Jamal is a former chapter president of the National Association of Black Journalists, which signed the friend-of-the-court brief supporting his right to communicate with the outside. The other associations filing the brief were the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Asian American Journalists Association.
“Inmates are not required to check their constitutional rights along with their personal belongings when they pass through prison gates,” the brief said. “Despite their incarceration, inmates maintain many of the constitutional rights afforded law-abiding citizens, including the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.”
While imprisoned, Abu-Jamal reportedly has been denied contact with the press and has had his mail confiscated and censored.
“These restrictions represent an unconstitutional ‘punishment’ for merely speaking one’s mind,” NABJ president and Washington Post columnist Dorothy Butler Gilliam said on behalf of NABJ. “He has the right to speak and be heard by the public.”
“With more than a million people housed in prisons across this country, it is extremely important for the courts to protect the First Amendment rights of inmates and Americans outside prison walls to communicate,” said SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairman Christi Harlan.
“For those of us outside prison,” Harlan adds, “it is inmates like Mumia Abu-Jamal who provide us with important and diverse views that ensure the accountability of a system we all pay for but most of us with never experience.”
Abu-Jamal is to be put to death by lethal injection Aug. 17. Ironically, NABJ members will gather in Philadelphia for their annual convention the same week.