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The Poem

The Author

Confronted with the fate of a man on death row, the staff of All Things Considered could think only of their own discomfort, their own problems caused by the controversy, their own political and professional security. Worse, they insisted on implicitly comparing their suffering to the suffering of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Diantha Parker cited "safety concerns" for NPR staff in explaining the refusal to air a poem about a man facing execution. When contacted by Demetria Martínez, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, concerning this story, executive producer Ellen Weiss moaned that the NPR-Mumia controversy "will follow me to my tombstone." Her tombstone. Compare this to the tombstone of a man who may soon die by lethal injection. Surely, Weiss deserves the Liberal Media Sensitivity to Language Award.

Weiss also informed Martínez that NPR has a policy of not airing any commentaries or "op-ed" pieces about Mumia Abu-Jamal while his lawsuit against NPR is pending. Strangely, the two people who made the decision not to air the poem, and informed me of that decision-Parker and Sarasohn-never mentioned such a policy in a telephone conversation of almost twenty minutes. Yet, some weeks later, Sarasohn told Dennis Bernstein: "It's a legal thing." Note how a poem became a "commentary," not a work of art, when that definition justified censorship.

The legal justification for this act of censorship amuses me, since I am also a lawyer. As fellow attorney Bill Newman, head of the western Massachusetts ACLU, points out, "The reason for silence in the face of pending litigation does not apply. As a poet, an independent person, you are not a corporate spokesperson. You cannot bind the corporation. The reason corporations like NPR say 'no comment' is because they don't want the statements to be used against them in court. That rationale does not apply to a poet reading a poem. It makes no sense."

Furthermore, the subject of the lawsuit and the subject of the poem are totally different. The censored poem is not about Mumia's censored commentaries, nor about his First Amendment rights. Mumia's lawsuit against NPR does not concern his criminal case or his possible execution. Newman raises an ominous question: "If Mumia were to dismiss his lawsuit, would they air this poem?"

NPR's policy, even if ex post facto, perpetuates Mumia's silence by silencing those who would speak for him. "First they censor him. Then, because he exercises his First Amendment right to remedy the violation, NPR compounds that affront to his freedom of expression by refusing to allow others to comment on his behalf," says Newman.

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