There is bill that is dangerous to your first amendment rights that has moved through Congress and awaits the President's signature. The
aptly titled, "Screw The First Amendment, You Damned Protesters Get Off My Lawn Act innocuously titled "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011," has passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House recorded only 3 votes against it. There has been virtually no coverage in the mainstream press.
This bill which its sponsor Thomas Rooney (R-Fla) says was written to tighten up restrictions on trespass on the White House grounds is a monument to what a difference one omitted word can make and to the importance of precise language in law.
The revisions would make the law vague and open to exploitative interpretation that would effectively outlaw protest not only near persons or locations protected by the Secret Service (presidents, vice presidents, presidential Candidates, foreign dignitaries, etc.) but also at events vaguely described as, "special events of national significance."
The bill as yet unsigned by President Obama modifies the existing law 18 USC § 1752" in a number of ways, but the most potentially far reaching changes is the omission of the word, "willfully" from the law.
For example, the current law says:
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person or group of persons—and the proposed law says:
(1) willfully and knowingly to enter or remain in any posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted area of a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting;
(2) willfully and knowingly to enter or remain in any posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted area of a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance;
(3) willfully, knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, to engage in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any building or grounds described in paragraph (1) or (2) when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
(4) willfully and knowingly to obstruct or impede ingress or egress to or from any building, grounds, or area described in paragraph (1) or (2)
rest of current law at this link.
(a) whoever—Note the omission of the word "willfully." Gene Howington, a guest blogger on Jonathan Turley's blog site explains the import of the omission:
(1) knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so;
(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds
rest of bill at this link.
The root of the problem with this legislation lies in the omission of the word “willfully” to make the condition simply “knowingly” in conjunction with the phrase “or so that, such conduct, in fact”. The use of this conditional phrase effectively nullifies the intent component in the absence of “willfully” being explicitly stated. You may not have willfully or knowingly done anything other than exercise your free speech and free assembly rights, but if you “in fact” “[impede] or [disrupt] the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions”, you can be arrested and charged under this proposed revision of 18 U.S.C. § 1752 whether the impediment or disruption was willful or not. The reworded law as the bill is currently formulated effectively does away with intent as a requirement in addition to expanding the meaning of the term ‘restricted buildings or grounds’ to mean virtually any place in proximity to or place proper a government function or an “event of national interest” is taking place. This would allow for the arrest of protesters just about anywhere. Outside political rallies, near the hotels of visiting foreign dignitaries, outside sporting or other public events like the Super Bowl . . . you get the idea.One of the 3 Representatives who voted against the bill, Justin Amash (R-Michigan) (quoted in Techdirt) explained his "no" vote this way:
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."One might wonder whether this bill is poorly written in an unfortunate error or whether it is written with the intent of allowing sloppy language to empower government officials to infringe upon your rights to free speech, assembly and petition.
Considering the climate that this law is written in one could certainly be tempted to suspect the worst. Cities around the country have been rewriting ordinances to drive out protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
As the establishment press spins it:
In Chicago, host of the overlapping North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Group of Eight summits in May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed limiting the hours of demonstrations, tightening permit rules and jacking up fines. The minimum penalty for violating parade rules, for example, would soar to $1,000 from $50.As an aside, check out that sentence in bold - doesn't that just about say it all? The problem of the powers that be is how to put down protesters without looking like fascists on the evening news.
In Charlotte, N.C., site of the Democratic National Convention in September, officials aim to ban demonstrators from throwing anything and from carrying a long list of items—from ice picks to felt-tip markers. ...
Cities thrust on the international stage by high-profile events have struggled for years with how to damp protests while limiting disruptions and images of police-protester clashes on the evening news. In 2011, Occupy protests turned violent at times in New York and Oakland, while much larger demonstrations across the Middle East left thousands dead. The Democratic mayors of Chicago, Charlotte and Tampa—all of whom have dealt with the "Occupy" movement since last summer—say the laws will keep their cities safe while protecting free speech.
Speaking of damping protests, Rahm Emanuel should get some sort of special award for the ordinances he got the Chicago City Council to pass:
On January 18, the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly passed two ordinances pushed by Emanuel that restrict protest rules and expand the mayor’s power to police the summits. Among other things, they increase fines for violating parade rules, allow the city to deputize police officers from outside Chicago for temporary duty and change the requirements for obtaining protest permits. Large signs and banners must now be approved, sidewalk protests require a permit, and permission for “large parades” will only be granted to those with a $1 million liability insurance policy. These are permanent changes in city law.Perhaps we should start calling Rahm "The Iceman" for the chilling effect that he has arranged for free speech in Chicago. In the same article quoted above is a paragraph that explains the establishment playbook:
Tightening rules governing protesters ahead of major political events, however, has become standard procedure in the United States. Thirteen years after the “battle in Seattle” during a World Trade Organization meeting, “free speech zones” have become commonplace and officials habitually raise the prospect of destructive bands of anarchists to justify tightening control of public assembly. In 2004, after Georgia’s governor preemptively declared a state of emergency ahead of the G8 summit near Savannah, the nearby city of Brunswick gave police the power to halt any protest. Last year, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said his department, which is working with the U.S. Secret Service and other federal agencies to train 13,000 officers in “mass arrests.”The chattering class at the great corporate media wurlitzer are already stoking the ows = violence propaganda machine in preparation for an anticipated spring resurgence of protest.
The Department of Homeland Security says it wants to "control protesters" as its 5 page "Special Coverage" (pdf) of the Occupy movement concludes:
"The growing support for the OWS movement has expanded the protests’ impact and increased the potential for violence. While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure (CI). The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged."While violence (even by DHS' admission) perpetrated by the Occupy and related current movements has been minimal, the media climate and the orchestrated hostility of police departments toward protesters has emphasized violence and the alleged danger of large protests.
So in a climate of manufactured outsized concern, where governments are so overwhelmed by the danger of protesters that they consider felt-tip markers wielded by protesters to be a dangerous weapon worthy of outlawing, the question is will officials of the federal government create an overly broad interpretation of this new revision of the law to crush the first amendment rights of protesters?
DHS is clearly worried and the Obama administration appears a little jumpy as well. It is being reported that the Obama administration has chosen to move the G8 summit to the President's mountain fortress at Camp David as a response to fears about Occupy protests. Further, the Obama administration has a history of using overbroad interpretations of the law to have a chilling effect on free speech. For example the Obama administration has expanded the use of the Espionage Act to apply it to government whistleblowers rather than spies.
It appears that the administration has the motive and the predilection for creatively misinterpreting laws to quell speech that it doesn't like. It seems a fair prediction that this bill, should it become law with a stroke of President Obama's pen, will be misused. Even if it is argued that the Obama administration is far too righteous to do such a thing, it is well to note that there will be successors to Mr. Obama that may not have his fine temperament and manners.
The risk of this poorly-written law being used to shut down our First Amendment rights seems quite great, so perhaps a postcard or email to President Obama requesting that he not sign this bill, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, also known as HR 347 would be a great idea. It might also be a good idea to ask your favorite media outlet to cover the matter.
Update: Interoccupy.org will be having a conference call to stop this bill on Thursday, March 8, "To organize a nationwide day of action to stop President Obama from signing the “Trespass” Bill – HR 347. It would prohibit disturbances, even from peaceful, otherwise lawful protesting, near anyone protected by Secret Service agents, any visiting dignitaries, and at any government functions."
Here's a link to sign up to participate: interoccupy.org