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The Mumia Abu-Jamal free-speech controversy, explained

Lisa Terry / Getty Images

When Mumia Abu-Jamal returned to a prison infirmary last week after being hospitalized with complications related to diabetes, the former Black Panther's supporters rallied around him, pushing the institution to provide him with the proper medical treatment they say he's been denied, and to allow his family and attorney to visit him.

"Within the last few weeks, he's lost at least 70 or 80 pounds," longtime supporter Pam Africa told the Philadelphia Daily News Sunday.

Meanwhile, the former journalist, who's serving a life sentence for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, is at the center of a new battle. This time,  it's not about the legitimacy of his conviction — long a prominent issue among his many supporters — or his treatment in jail, but a law that could keep him from speaking publicly.

The recent decline in the 60-year-old's health came just as the fight over the legislation — which critics have called a "revenge fantasy" against him — went before a judge.

This is all happening because he's simultaneously adored and reviled

Mandel Nigan / Getty Images

(Mandel Nigan/Getty Images)

Depending on whom you ask, Abu-Jamal, who has always maintained his innocence, is either a cold-blooded cop killer or a wrongfully convicted public intellectual.

People in the latter camp have remained loyal to him for decades. Human-rights and social-justice advocates worldwide believe his conviction was the result of a corrupt criminal justice system and a deeply flawed trial, and have cheered the decades-long appeals process that in 2011 succeeded in reducing his sentence from death to life in prison without parole.

The Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, a New York–based organization advocating for his release, counts the NAACP, human-rights organizations, members of Congress, and the governments of Detroit, San Francisco, and Paris (where a street bears Abu-Jamal's name) among the supporters of its goals. Amnesty International has found that his trial failed to meet international standards.

The intensity of this support for him means that 30 years after his conviction, there's still an appetite for his writing and speaking.

At the same time, his celebrity disgusts those who think his trial was legitimate and that he deserves his punishment.

That explains why the commencement address he recorded from his jail cell for the graduation ceremony of a tiny college inspired a law designed specifically to keep him quiet.

He recorded a very controversial college commencement address from behind bars

Abu-Jamal, who has written several books from his prison cell, been a regular radio contributor, and even participated in panel discussions using recorded messages, was invited last year to serve as the commencement speaker for Vermont's Goddard College, a small liberal arts school that he attended in 1970. In 1996, from prison, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Goddard.

His recorded remarks were delivered to the graduates on October 5, 2014. Listen to them here:

"Essentially, how does a young person, or for that matter even an older one, looking at the vast wide world with a quiet sense of terror have a voice amidst that monstrous din?  How does she find that voice that can create space to think? To be? To grow?" he asked, telling students, "Your job isn't how to get a job. It's to make a difference."

The speech was pretty innocuous. Abu-Jamal didn't speak about the crime he was convicted of or mention Faulkner.

But it was still hugely controversial. The fact that he was given this platform — and that the speech went viral — outraged the slain officer's family, members of the Philadelphia Police Union, and some politicians.

Pennsylvania passed a law to silence him

Within weeks of the commencement address, the Pennsylvania legislature passed, and then–Gov. Tom Corbett signed, the Revictimization Relief Act,  which lets crime victims seek injunctions against speeches and any other "conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim."

"What it basically does is it allows a victim or their representative to alert a judge to the activity which they feel is revictimizing them — whatever the perpetrator might be doing — and letting a judge decide," Rep. Mike Vereb, the bill's House sponsor, told the Marshall Project in November 2014. It then lets the judge order "appropriate relief," which could include an injunction to stop the convict from speaking publicly or even force them to pay monetary damages.

The law doesn't mention Abu-Jamal's name, but there's little question that it was a direct response to his speech and the attention it received. MSNBC's Trymaine Lee reported that shortly after signing the bill act into law, Corbett held a press conference near where Faulkner was killed, assuring reporters the new law would stifle the "obscene celebrity" of people like Abu-Jamal.

"With books, radio commentaries, and most recently a commencement speech, this unrepentant cop-killer has tested the limits of decency," Corbett said.

An early victory for Mumia supporters

Two separate lawsuits — one by the ACLU and one by the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, which represents Abu-Jamal and his allies — have challenged the law in federal court, saying it infringes on free-speech rights and asking the court to declare it unconstitutional.

On Friday, a Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge decided not to dismiss the lawsuits, allowing the fight against the law to continue.

The Pennsylvania Patriot-News reported that the judge noted in his decision that at least one prisoner has shelved the publication of a memoir because he's afraid of being prosecuted under the law, and that a radio network has stopped airing Abu-Jamal's weekly commentaries.

Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams has promised not to enforce the new law pending a determination of its constitutionality.

The law is a "revenge fantasy" that probably won't hold up

There's a broad consensus that the law designed to keep Abu-Jamal quiet is just far too restrictive to pass constitutional muster. Burton Caine, a Temple University law professor and First Amendment expert, told the Marshall Project that "it violates the Constitution straight out" and the court will most likely strike it down as abridging the freedom of speech.

Even people who don't support Abu-Jamal agree. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky — who is the furthest thing from a supporter, calling people who rally behind Abu-Jamal "Mumidiots" — wrote, "Stripping all rights from a prisoner is an enjoyable revenge fantasy, but it is part of the gulag, not part of America."

The Patriot-News editorial pointed out that despite the law's political support and intentions to protect victims, it was unreasonably broad, arguing that Maureen Faulkner (the wife of the victim) "does not have the right to be Mumia's censor-for-life...Some victims of terrible crimes will be in a ‘state of mental anguish' as long as the person who did it to them is alive and breathing. Does ‘breathing' qualify as ‘conduct' that's now subject to court action?"

That's a question for the courts. For now, the fight over the law — along with fight over the humanity of Abu-Jamal himself — continues.