Trigger Warnings and Tyranny

February 11, 2015 ACLU, Gay and Lesbian, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (4) 795

Pennsylvania_State_Capitol_Front_PanoramaIn October, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which allows crime victims to police the actions of perpetrators for life with almost no limits. The inspiration was a recorded commencement speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal played at a Vermont college earlier that month; Pennsylvania legislators said the speech re-victimized the widow and family of Daniel Faulkner, the Philly cop Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing.

Faulkner’s widow was not forced to hear the speech. Her trauma and mental anguish came only from the knowledge that Abu-Jamal would deliver it. “How could they allow him to speak when Danny no longer has a voice,” she asked in an official statement. “It is my opinion that all murderers should forfeit their right to free speech when they take the life of an innocent person.”

A majority of Pennsylvania legislators agreed. They gave Maureen Faulkner, and other victims, the legal right to stop convicted people like Abu-Jamal from doing almost anything. The law, as written and passed, allows victims to prevent any “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim,” with such conduct defined as that which “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”

To many, the idea that one person’s subjective emotional experience trumps another’s constitutional rights is an affront, and the ACLU has already sued to strike down the Pennsylvania law. But the elevation of emotion is emerging as a disturbing theme of 21st century law. [pullquote position=”right”]As more Americans seek to protect people’s feelings, they sometimes find themselves in conflict with the foundation principles of justice.[/pullquote]

This year the Supreme Court will rule on Elonis v. United States, a complicated case in which a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, was convicted after posting graphic and horrifying Facebook statuses obviously directed as his ex-wife. Elonis’s defense claims he was writing rap lyrics, expressing his darker urges in the style of Eminem, and that the First Amendment protects him. Prosecutors say his messages constitute a true threat, and are not constitutionally protected. The case reached the high court partly because of a question over jury instructions: While the First Amendment and prior case law rely on the speaker’s intent to threaten, jurors who convicted Elonis were told to consider his speech a threat “if a reasonable person would have felt threatened.” [Emphasis added]

In other words, the difference between free speech and a federal crime hinges not on what was written or how, but rather on the emotional response of the person doing the reading. Continue Reading

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