The warnings rang out across the internet last week causing a bit of a panic.
We were warned that a new law “would make it a felony—a serious criminal offense punishable by lengthy terms of incarceration—to participate in many forms of protest associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests of last year.” And that the bill “will make protest illegal.” Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) called it a dangerous bill in posts on his Facebook page and claimed it would ban protests that disrupt government activity.
Don’t hang up those protest banners yet.
The bill does not make protest a felony, will not impact most (if any) Occupy protests, and certainly doesn’t make protest illegal. We face a great many challenges to protest rights, and this bill (recently signed into law) is no good, but let’s at least get the story straight: HR347, officially titled the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, tweaks a part of the criminal code that gives the Secret Service authority to restrict access and secure buildings and areas where the President, Vice-president and other officials under their protection are. It’s been on the books for years, and has included language that appears to be aimed squarely at protests and protesters.
For years, the Secret Service has had the authority to restrict access to public spaces and it has been a federal offense to enter the restricted area, or to engage in “disorderly or disruptive conduct.” For years the law has also given the Secret Service broad authorities at ‘special events of national significance.’
The law is terrible, but it hasn’t been widely used against protesters, perhaps because local, state and federal law enforcement have so many other tools at their disposal: heavily militarized police, ‘free speech’ zones, preemptive arrests, mass arrests, infiltration of organizing committees and other insults to the First Amendment.
We can count on all those tools being used at the three special events in the coming months: the NATO summit in Chicago, Republican Convention in Tampa Bay and the Democratic Convention in Charlotte. We can also bet that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are exploring other ways to shrink turnout and restrict protests, including this law.
What we’re really worried about…. Our main concern with the new law is the potential to impact protests in front of the White House. In recent years there have been dramatic protests at the fence in front of the White House… from standing on the ledge at the fence to attaching signs to activists chaining themselves to the fence. The new law seems to be clearly aimed at these protests at the fence.
We do also have to be concerned about a rather esoteric change to the language of the law that the lawyers point out: it used to be you had to engage in this behavior both ‘willfully’ and ‘knowingly.’ Now, you just need to do it ‘knowingly.’ It’s been explained to me that prosecuters won’t need to prove you knew you were breaking the law, only that you intended to do what you were doing. We’re working to determine how the Secret Service and Park Police are interpreting this law, and how they will enforce it. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more. In the meantime, do not sit down do not shut up. Read more about the law at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund