Death row inmate sues NPR over cancellation of commentary
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Death row inmate and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal filed suit in federal District Court in Washington, D.C., in late March, alleging National Public Radio violated his First Amendment speech rights by pulling from its broadcast lineup his series of commentaries about life on death row in July 1994.
Abu-Jamal argued in his complaint that since NPR was created and funded by the federal government, it is a federal agency and therefore prohibited under the First Amendment from interfering in free speech.
Abu-Jamal alleged that NPR broke the contract because of political pressure from “conservative members of Congress and other groups which NPR officials have concluded can and do influence the funding of NPR,” including Senate majority leader Bob Dole.
A spokeswoman for NPR, which had not filed an answer to the suit by early April, denied allegations that the decision to pull the Abu- Jamal commentaries was the result of political pressure or fear of loss of federal funding. She noted that the decision to discontinue the series occurred before the November 1994 election of a Republican majority to the Congress, which early in this session challenged expenditure of public funds on NPR.
NPR said in a public statement that it is an independent, not- for-profit broadcast news organization which exercises traditional editorial oversight, and is not a government agency. NPR asserted that “when NPR News chose not to air Mr. Abu-Jamal’s commentaries, we made an independent editorial decision. We believed it was not journalistically responsible to use Mr. Abu-Jamal in a commentator’s role at a time when he was the focal point of a highly polarized and politicized controversy, and when his legal case was on appeal.”
Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death 13 years ago for the shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Last fall protests in the United States and Europe supported his request for a new hearing, which was subsequently denied. Abu-Jamal is now seeking a new trial on the grounds that he is innocent and did not receive a fair trial because he was an outspoken critic of the Philadelphia police. (Abu-Jamal v. National Public Radio; Abu-Jamal’s Counsel: Garry Peller, Washington, D.C.)