Chipping Away At The First Amendment: New 'Trespassing' Bill Could Be Used To Criminalize Legitimate Protests (Techdirt)
Sunday March 4th, 2012
Don't you just love Congress, where almost no bills actually are what they say on the tin? There's some buzz building online about the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011" (or HR 347), which has been positioned as a simple updating of trespassing laws concerning federal grounds. However, as some are pointing out, hidden in there is quite the Easter egg that effectively outlaws protests near people who are "authorized" to be protected by the Secret Service (mainly the President and Vice President, but it could include a lot more as well). Only three Representatives voted against it, including Rep. Justin Amash who explained his concerns via Facebook:
Current law makes it illegal to enter or remain in an area where certain government officials (more particularly, those with Secret Service protection) will be visiting temporarily if and only if the person knows it's illegal to enter the restricted area but does so anyway. The bill expands current law to make it a crime to enter or remain in an area where an official is visiting even if the person does not know it's illegal to be in that area and has no reason to suspect it's illegal. The specifics of the law pretty clearly seem to make it a crime to do a standard form of protest, such as anything that "impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions" or just if someone "engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds...." As Amash notes, there can be times when it makes sense to protect certain individuals, but "disorderly or disruptive" conduct is a pretty broad brush... and it's one very frequently abused by law enforcement officials.
Some government officials may need extraordinary protection to ensure their safety. But criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activity -- even if that activity is annoying to those government officials -- violates our rights. I voted "no." It passed 388-3.
You know all those stories we've had about people being arrested for filming police? Quite often those people are charged with disorderly conduct -- which often seems to boil down to "that person did something law enforcement doesn't like." To then take that and say that anything that constitutes disorderly conduct on the grounds of a building where someone who is protected by the Secret Service is a crime, it appears to be wide open to abuse, and a pretty clear restriction on the free speech rights of anyone wishing to engage in normal and healthy protest of our political process.
On top of that, the punishment can be pretty severe. You can get up to a year in jail for being found guilty of these things, and that jumps up to 10 years if you are carrying a "deadly or dangerous weapon."
As Amash notes, there are legitimate safety concerns to be aware of, and there are issues with doing something that significantly impedes government regulations. But it's really not difficult to see how this bill could very, very easily be stretched to be used against those doing standard protesting against significant political figures.[NOAD]