In a plan that started out as a knee-jerk reaction to a crazed assailant’s attack on U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords a year ago, Congress has approved and sent to President Obama legislation that critics say essentially guts the First Amendment.
“The bill’s language is so overly broad as to put an end to free speech, political protest and the right to peaceably assembly in all areas where government officials happen to be present,” wrote John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute about H.R. 347.
It was approved by Congress and awaits only Obama’s signature. While garnering significant enthusiasm in Congress, one member, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said he couldn’t support it.
“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,” he said. “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.
“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,” he said.
The bill states, “Whoever knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so; 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; 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; or knowingly engages in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds; attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished…”
Significantly, though, the definition of “restricted buildings” is anywhere where someone protected by the Secret Service “will be temporarily visiting.”
“A person eating in a diner while a presidential candidate is trying to score political points with the locals could be arrested if government agents determine that he is acting ‘disorderly.’ Mind you, depending on who’s making the assessment, anything can be considered disorderly, including someone exercising his right to free speech by muttering to himself about a government official. And if that person happens to have a pocketknife or nail clippers in his possession (or any other innocuous item that could be interpreted by the police as ‘dangerous’), he could face up to 10 years in prison,” Whitehead warned.
“Given that the Secret Service not only protects the president but all past sitting presidents, members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, presidential candidates, and anyone who the president determines needs protection, anywhere these officials happen to be becomes a zone where the First Amendment is effectively off-limits,” he said.
At the Examiner, Philadelphia columnist Tim McCown concluded: “Defenders and apologists for mainly Democrats and Obama supporters claim this act is completely innocent and all of us who believe differently have drunk Ron Paul’s Kool-Aid again. But a post on George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley’s blog page notes that the imprecise language, just as in the NDAA, creates risks and can most definitely be seen as a threat to our First Amendment right to Free Speech, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom to Petition our government. None of that is very comforting in light of the Patriot Act and surveillance of and wire tapping of Americans.”
He continued, “Tonight you no longer need to be a conspiracy theorist to have real questions about whether we are becoming a police state.”
On Paul’s website was this: “Just when you thought the government couldn’t ruin the First Amendment any further: The House of Representatives approved a bill on Monday that outlaws protests in instances where some government officials are nearby, whether or not you even know it.”
Whitehead noted that members of Congress, feeling the wrath of Americans pummeled by rising fuel prices, a tanking economy and unpopular war efforts, “Have been working hard to keep their unhappy constituents at a distance – avoiding town-hall meetings, making minimal public appearances while at home in their districts, only appearing at events in controlled settings where they’re the only ones talking, and if they must interact with constituents, doing so via telephone town meetings or impromptu visits to local businesses where the chances of being accosted by angry voters are greatly minimized.
“While the Trespass Bill may have started out with the best of intentions, it has ended up as the government’s declaration of zero tolerance for individuals exercising their First Amendment rights,” he said.
“If these types of laws had been in effect during the Civil Rights movement, there would have been no march on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow activists would have been rendered criminals. And King’s call for ‘militant nonviolent resistance’ would have been silenced by police in riot gear,” he said.
He also criticized so-called “First Amendment zones” or areas.
“Free speech zones have become commonplace at political rallies and the national conventions of both major political parties,” he said. “One of the most infamous free speech zones was erected at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Not so much a zone of free expression as a cage, it was a space enclosed by chain link fences, Jersey walls, and razor wire. Judge Douglas Woodlock, who toured the free speech cage before the convention, noted, ‘One cannot conceive of other elements put in place to make a space more of an affront to the idea of free expression than the designated demonstration zone.’
“Bubble zones and free speech zones, in essence, destroy the very purpose of the First Amendment, which assures us of the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances,” he said.