Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: See also "University Pulls the Plug on Free Speech" for details on this important case.]

Free Speech on Death Row

by Walter M. Brasch

The university apparently believes PR is more important than airing diverse views
(AR) BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- Usually, a five-minute radio commentary about fatherhood wouldn't be controversial. But Temple University decided that anything a death row inmate has to say shouldn't be broadcast on WRTI-FM, its 50,000 watt non-commercial radio station that has a range of more than 100 miles.

Not only did Temple pull the series of 13 commentaries, it also pulled the one-hour daily "Democracy Now" program -- a magazine-format show that includes news, features, and commentaries -- and cancelled all of the Pacifica Network News programs.

George Ingram, Temple's associate vice-president for university relations, and the man who ordered the programs cancelled midway through its $6,000 contract, says the decision had been "under consideration for some time," but acknowledges that the abrupt termination was "accelerated" by the commentaries.

Ingram says the new programming reflects more classical jazz and provides an opportunity for the university "to provide audiences with a window into the academic excellence and enormous educational resources that Temple University offers." Since the radio station is under control of the university's PR office, the university apparently believes airing diverse views isn't the proper image for urban university, but that using a radio station as a PR vehicle is.

Abu-Jamal had been under FBI surveillance since he was almost 15 years old
At the center of the controversy is Mumia Abu-Jamal, 42, convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia police officer. At the time of his arrest, Abu-Jamal was a respected Philadelphia radio journalist with no previous criminal record, nor any history of violence. In fact, unknown to him, Abu-Jamal had been under FBI surveillance since he was almost 15 years old.

Abu-Jamal maintains his innocence, but has never said what really happened that night. He is currently on "death row" at Pennsylvania's Greene County Correctional Institute in Waynesburg; his appeal is at the state supreme court. The arguments include that the prosecution used peremptory challenges to exclude blacks from the jury pool solely because of their race, that witnesses claim police and prosecutors harassed and intimidated them to falsify their testimony against Abu-Jamal, and that information favorable to Abu-Jamal's case was never given to his defense attorneys by the prosection, a violation of court rules.

Further, the defense argues, the police never ran standard tests to determine if Abu-Jamal had recently fired a gun, nor did they run ballistics tests on his own gun, which had been in his car.

Because of innumerable trial inconsistencies, and evidence that Abu-Jamal may have been framed by police who wanted to avenge the death of a comrade by blaming a black militant who spoke out against police abuse, thousands of Americans have rallied to Abu-Jamal's support. Several countries, citing human rights violations and the myriad inconsistencies in evidence, have formally petitioned Pennsylvania's governor to commute Abu-Jamal's sentence. Among the petitioners are South African president Nelson Mandela, Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and dozens of internationally-known writers.

Shackled and forced to read his scripts that were posted on the other side of a thick plexiglass window, Abu-Jamal recorded 13 segments
During his 15 years in prison, Abu-Jamal has continued to write newspaper columns, radio commentaries and books, usually while being intimidated and harassed by prison officials. The courts have ruled that prisons may discipline disruptive inmates, but they have also ruled that Abu-Jamal was not disruptive, and most restrictions placed upon him were the result of him speaking out about a variety of social issues unrelated to his own case.

In May 1994, National Public Radio (NPR) abruptly cancelled commentaries by Abu-Jamal after succumbing to pressure from Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police, a gaggle of conservative radio talk show hosts, and a handful of conservative Congressmen.

At the time, NPR claimed it cancelled the commentaries because it had "serious misgivings about the appropriateness of using as a commentator a convicted murderer seeking a new trial, particularly since we had not arranged for other commentaries or coverage on the subject of crime, violence, and punishment that provided context or contrasting points of view." However, the news division chose not to get those other views. (Fifteen months later, NPR's Scott Simon hosted a 30-minute discussion of the case, with comments by Abu-Jamal and several persons associated with the case.)

Temple's Ingram cites the NPR cancellation as one of the reasons why the university also cancelled Abu-Jamal's commentaries. "If that position [to cancel the commentaries] was good enough for NPR," says Ingram, "it was good enough for me." Pacifica, however, had offered the slain officer's family and the FOP air time for their views. They declined.

In February 1995, prison officials suspended Abu-Jamal's family/social visitation rights for 30 days, and barred all media access to him for 90 days for "engaging in the profession of journalism." The actions appeared to be retaliation for Abu-Jamal writing "Live from Death Row," a book critical of Pennsylvania's prison system.

In a "friend-of-the-court" brief, six national journalism organizations, led by the Society of Professional Journalists, and including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, argued, "Despite incarceration, inmates maintain many of the constitutional rights afforded law abiding citizens including the First Amendment right of freedom of expression." The organizations took no stand on Abu-Jamal's guilt or innocence.

Then, in September 1996, a U.S. district judge, after reviewing a recommendation by a federal magistrate, ruled that prison officials violated not only Abu-Jamal's First Amendment rights but his civil rights as well when they opened, photocopied, and widely distributed mail sent to him by his attorneys.

In October, and with the assistance of the Prison Radio Project, Abu-Jamal -- shackled and forced to read his scripts that were posted on the other side of a thick plexiglass window -- recorded 13, three-to-five- minute segments on a wide range of topics, including Mad Cow Disease, rap music, corporate influence upon the media, the use of tobacco as a drug, racism, and prison reform, but never discussed his own case.

Less than two weeks later, the state's Department of Corrections created new rules that forbid journalists from bringing cameras and audio and video equipment into the interview and required them to register as part of a prisoner's 40-person maximum "social list," not as journalists, and forbade them from being on more than one prisoner's social list.

Further, under the new rules, if a journalist wished to talk with a prisoner, the prisoner's allotted time with family and friends was reduced. David Mendoza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, says the ban "clearly is intended to silence Abu-Jamal." Six other states have also severely limited prisoner access to the media.

California's Department of Corrections in 1996 issued rules that forbid all face-to-face interviews with prisoners, and excluded reporters from bringing even pencils and notepads into the prison. However, the state's Office of Administrative Law has preliminarily disapproved the rules and is awaiting a new submission from the Department of Corrections.

The Supreme Court of the United States, affirming First Amendment freedoms, has ruled that "reasonable and effective means of communication [from and to inmates must] remain open, and no discrimination in terms of content be involved." Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections appears to have violated that Supreme Court ruling.

"We went ahead with the commentaries," says Dan Coughlin, "Democracy Now" producer, "because we wanted to take a stand against growing restrictions on media access to prisoners, and to affirm the right of prisoners to talk with the media and to the public." But there was a third reason -- "they were just good commentaries."

Although Temple cancelled an alternative view, apparently listeners of the 24 stations that didn't cancel the programs, including those in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., had no problem with the commentaries. Coughlin says the response has been "eight-to-one" in favor of the commentaries.

The PEN American Center, an organization of writers and editors, argued that Abu-Jamal's work "and that of other inmates like him has enormous value, both in its own right as literature, and insofar as it has alerted audiences to conditions prevailing in our country's jails.

Were this means of communication to be broken, PEN argued, prisons would become even more than they are already, an opaque and forgotten part of our society, a place where living conditions would deteriorate still further without provoking any public concern."

Reflecting the views of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, Steve Geimann, president of the 14,000-member Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), called Temple's action "censorship," and argues, "In our American democracy, broadcasters and news organizations seek to offer numerous points of view. Our democracy is strong because we protect everyone's right of free speech, even those whose views we may find objectionable or discomforting."

At Temple University, the departments of journalism, broadcasting, history, philosophy, political science, and religion all teach about the First Amendment and the necessity for all views, even controversial ones spoken by controversial individuals, to be heard. Students learn that denying freedom of speech to others often means we are afraid to face the truth. The university administration has demonstrated to its students, and to the world, that it is uncomfortable with the philosophy that shaped our democracy.

Dr. Brasch is an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor, and deputy Region I director of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is currently professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University

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Albion Monitor March 2, 1997 (

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