Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: See also "Free Speech on Death Row" for commentary on this important case.]

University Pulls the Plug on Free Speech

by Christine Stavem

Called "clearly an act of censorship"
Taking an authoritarian approach to political debate, Temple University last week canceled -- within minutes of airing -- Pacifica Radio Network's national daily political show "Democracy Now," featuring commentary by death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, along with a live discussion about media access to prison inmates.

Abu-Jamal, an internationally known radio journalist and former Black Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, was sentenced to death and currently is in a Pennsylvania state correctional facility. While on death row -- and consistently maintaining his innocence -- Abu-Jamal has become a prominent voice in the public debate of racism in the justice system.

"I am outraged that administrators at Temple University decided to silence an alternative voice offered to listeners of its radio station, WRTI-FM," said Society of Professional Journalists President Steve Geimann. "The sudden, abrupt decision to pre-empt Pacifica's 'Democracy Now' is clearly an act of censorship.

"Our democracy is strong because we protect everyone's right of free speech, even those whose views we may find objectionable or discomforting," he added.

Temple University officials declined to comment.

At least seven states have cracked down on media access to inmates
Bowing to politically charged protests, NPR in 1994 similarly pulled the plug on Abu-Jamal's commentaries on prison life that were scheduled to appear on its popular "All Things Considered" program, acquiescing to forces that insisted the views of a death row prisoner should not be on a publicly funded broadcast network.

Not only do such decisions constitute censorship of free speech, counter First Amendment activists, but they also serve to strengthen the recent trend of silencing voices within the prison system.

At least seven states -- Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Indians, Missouri, Rhode Island and Virginia -- have cracked down on media access to inmates. And if prison inmates are not allowed to speak through the media, then the public is not allowed to hear them, says Peter Sussman, president of SPJ's Northern California chapter.

Pacifica radio is equally as resolute: "The American public has a right to hear them and make their own decision. That's what it means to live in a democracy," said Julie Drizin, Pacifica's executive producer.

The tide of censorship, however, refuses to recede. Pacifica's Prison Radio Project recorded Abu-Jamal's commentaries just 10 days before the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned journalists from videotaping, audio recording or photographing any inmates.

The department's specific policy: "There shall be no special arrangement made for news media interviews with specific inmates," although it maintains the media can still come in with cameras "if they want tours of the facility," according to a freedom of information memo.

James W. Ewert, staff attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, noted that such a policy equates restrictions: "A journalist can mingle during general and public visiting hours. Or a journalist can apply to be placed on a personal visitation list, but is prohibited under that scenario from bringing in pens, pencils, notebooks or recording devices for an interview."

Does that sound like restricted access?

Pacific and SPJ take no position on the guilt or innocence of Abu-Jamal, said SPJ's Geimann, rather: "This issue today is all about allowing him -- and other prisoners -- the right to be heard and about the media's ability to pursue stories that will inform and enlighten the public and the bureaucracy."

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Albion Monitor March 2, 1997 (

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