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President Barack Obama signed a bill, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 (H.R. 347) into law March 8, 2012, which makes disturbing certain political events a federal offense, according to a Slate article by Dahlia Lithwick and Raymond Vasvari.
The bill “makes protest of any type potentially a federal offense with anywhere from a year to 10 years in federal prison, providing it occurs in the presence of elites brandishing Secret Service protection, or during an officially defined ‘National Special Security Event’ (NSSE),” according to a Huffington Post editorial by Jeanine Molloff.
I read the two page bill, and taken at face value, it is completely innocuous. It does not explicitly limit the First Amendment right to peaceable assembly. H.R. 347 is meant to increase the functionality of the government or, perhaps more accurately, to decrease attempts to interrupt the government’s operation.
Opponents of the law claim it demolishes citizens’ rights to demonstrate against the government. It is easy to get lost in the previously mentioned authors’ polemic, however. Between their excessive hyperboles and metaphors, I lost the bill’s real meaning.
Take, for example, Molloff’s piece. She wrote, “What…so many government elites cynically ignore is the very nature of protest. Protest, in its very nature, is intended to disrupt government business as usual.”
I disagree with Molloff’s understanding of protests. Protests should raise awareness about issues, but they should not purposefully disrupt the government’s operation.
Admittedly, the bill is worded somewhat vaguely, leaving it open to interpretation. In that way, it has potential to be construed to suit the government’s needs — possibly at the expense of its citizens.
Let me break it down. A person can be sent to the slammer for up to 10 years if he or she knowingly enters restricted areas without authorization, knowingly and purposefully tries to disrupt government business or knowingly and purposefully tries to block access to or exit from restricted areas, thus impeding government business.
In this case, the bill defines restricted grounds as areas that are cordoned off, areas that are occupied by anyone under the protection of the Secret Service or areas that are being used for some nationally important event.
The infamous Occupy Wall Street protestors think, quite unsurprisingly, that they are the target of the bill, Lithwick and Vasvari wrote. Although I was under the impression the Occupy movement had dissolved long ago.
I would never be the first person to support public demonstrations or rallies. In fact, I find them to be almost childish — a petty, sometimes uncivil, way to express unhappiness. But the First Amendment guarantees the right to peaceable assembly, therefore any litigation that restricts or limits that right is unconstitutional.
Is H.R. 347 unconstitutional? Apparently not, seeing that it passed the House of Representatives 399-3, according to Lithwick and Vasvari’s article “You Can’t Occupy This.” And no one has tried to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court yet.
The bill, while not unconstitutional, could be a problem, thanks to its Secret Service clause. Many people might not realize they are in the vicinity of someone protected by the Secret Service, so there is potential for an accidental breach.
I do not see this law as a significant threat to freedom, at least not initially. However, it does set an ominous precedent. If the president and Congress can pass laws that slowly chip away at the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, I wonder how long it will be before more rights are removed to increase the government’s self-security.