By Kat Richardson
Twice a year, I cross an ocean and a continent to attend college. I travel more than 9,000 miles round-trip, and fly over hundreds of schools to get to Goddard College, in the remote hills of Vermont. This Fall, I land dead-center in the middle of a civil rights controversy when outgoing graduates choose Alumnus Mumia Abu-Jamal as their Commencement Speaker. Mumia was convicted of killing a Philadelphia Police Officer in 1981 and ordered to die, surviving nearly thirty years on death row until 2011 when his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
I’m fascinated that the 2014 graduates have chosen Mumia to speak, and wonder first about logistics, until I learn he has already pre-recorded his words from prison. The possibility that people would try to stop his message from reaching us, doesn’t even occur to me, until news cameras show up. Suddenly, there are virtual death threats, bomb scares, and pressure from politicians and the Fraternal Order of Police to cancel Mumia’s speech. College officials reassure us that the graduation will happen, but some of the protocols have changed and with the added media presence, there’s something that just feels different on campus.
It’s graduation day and the joyous ceremony happens uninterrupted, three hours ahead of schedule. A group of protestors assemble along the property line bordering the campus. Fortunately it’s a peaceful demonstration as I approach one of them. We begin a dialogue exchanging views and asking questions of one another. He thanks me for listening and I thank him for speaking up about what he feels strongly about. We acknowledge that we haven’t changed each other's opinions, but we know we were heard and there’s satisfaction in that. We shake hands two times before I walk away.
Only two weeks later, in response to Mumia’s private speech for Goddard College, and a failed attempt to silence him, both the Senators and Representatives of Pennsylvania have introduced bills quickly voted upon, passed, and signed into law by the Governor, effective immediately. It happened that fast. Bam. Bam. Bam!
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania criticizes these fast-tracked laws as “overbroad and vague and completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech found in the First Amendment of the federal constitution.” In a letter requesting the Senate and Legislature to vote against it, the ACLU argues, “Both of these bills attempt to shut down public speech by people who are currently or formerly incarcerated by giving a victim, the district attorney, or the Attorney General the power to file a civil action against a person before the speech occurs if the conduct “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” This is defined as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.” No one seems to acknowledge how far-reaching these laws can get, yet Governor Tom Corbett signs them anyway.
The fact that these bills have so hastily and sloppily become law in Pennsylvania, motivates me to project my voice louder and farther, lest I lose my right by not using it. The First Amendment was created with great foresight to protect future generations from suffering at the hands of a corrupt government. Taking free speech away from prisoners is an incremental step towards taking it away from other marginalized groups, or whomever else those in power don’t want to be heard. This is dangerous. It’s important that we hear everyone! Blocking prisoners from this basic right creates an umbrella of censorship over us all.
Peace officers sworn to protect us are the ones who have initiated these bills and protested against Mumia’s right to free speech and in a sense, censoring our rights, validates for me, the ongoing need to advocate for the importance of upholding First Amendment Rights for all. I didn’t know when I arrived at Goddard, that I would learn the importance of protecting and preserving our free speech from a death-row survivor or the Fraternal Order of Police. In my own self-sequestered by privilege existence, I had not heard of either one of them until this semester.
Students and inmates are known to be outspoken and prone to protest against the establishment, but only at Goddard have I encountered police protesting against students and an inmate giving a prerecorded speech. Thank you Goddard College: our new interim President Bob Kenny, faculty, administration, and staff for embracing us 100% with your support and protection. You held strong in the heat of scathing public insults and personal threats. Your strength and support during this very odd attack on the school’s reputation and attempts to discredit faculty and embarrass students, reinforces how pleased I am that this is the institution from where I will earn my degree. And Mumia, thank you for your powerful voice, and for not being afraid to use it.