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New Bill Restricts Speech and Assembly Rights; Peaceful Political Protest at Risk of Criminalization

One might think from the name – the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act – that this legislation is meant to spruce up federal buildings and beautify their grounds with landscaping.

But the bill does none of that. Instead, H.R. 347, which President Barack Obama quietly signed into law on March 8, has the potential to criminalize protests and clamp down on the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom to assemble. With recent and possible future indigenous protests against tar sands pipelines, with the Occupy movement springing back with the season, with demonstrations expected at the NATO Conference in Chicago this month and at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September, the new bill gives the government the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in peaceful political protest.

The new law amends the federal criminal code to expand an existing statute that criminalizes certain activity in and around areas that are restricted by the Secret Service. It defines “restricted buildings or grounds” as the White House or its grounds or the vice president’s official residence or its grounds; a building or grounds where the president or someone else protected by the Secret Service is or will be visiting; and a building or grounds at which a National Special Security Event is taking place.

Under the new law, that means the Indigenous Peoples arrested for civil disobedience in front of the White House last fall in a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline, and later released, could be charged with a felony. “Simply standing with a bullhorn, holding up a sign, promoting a contentious message or even being on the grounds of a Secret Service secured event will now make it possible for the government to detain, arrest and charge those involved in these ‘disruptions’ (even if you just happen to be passing through) with a felonious criminal act,” according to InfoWars.

Under the old law those kinds of activities were deemed illegal within the restricted zones: “willfully and knowingly” entering a restricted zone without authorization, engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct, blocking an entrance or exit to a restricted zone, or engaging in violent acts against people or property.

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These four activities are still illegal under H.R. 347, but the “willingly” part of the provision has been dropped. “This is one of the two major changes to existing law (the other is the extension of the statute to the White House and VP's residence),” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website. “Previously, the law required someone to act ‘willfully and knowingly.’ This is the state of mind the government has to prove you had to establish your guilt (the ‘intent standard’). ‘Willfully and knowingly’ means that you need to know you're committing a crime. ‘Knowingly’ just means you need to be aware you're in a restricted zone, but not necessarily that it's unlawful.”

The punishment for violating the new Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act is harsh, the ACLU said. If a weapon is used or injury is caused, which is a felony, a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 can be imposed. Otherwise, the maximum is one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

ACLU was cautious in defining the impact of H.R. 347 means for peaceful protesters. “The honest answer is we simply don't know yet. These zones will hopefully occupy (no pun intended) a very small footprint at the three types of locations covered by the law. Also, these areas must be clearly identified to prevent protesters from inadvertently violating the law (or else they can't form the required intent). That said, the provision covering disruptions in or near the secure zones is of concern and could be misused to stifle lawful protest; same with the entrance/exit provision. These were already in the law, but the "knowingly" change could make them easier to abuse,” the ACLU said.

Others believe there’s solid reason to worry about the amended law. “H.R. 347 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 (NSSEs),” Huffington Post columnist Jeanne Moloff said. NSSEs, which were created by Bill Clinton in Presidential Decision Directive 62 in 1998, are events that come under Secret Service protection. Past NSSE events included the funerals of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and Superbowl XXXVI, Moloff noted. “Other NSSE protected events include the Academy Awards and the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. I suppose presidential candidates, no matter how insane they may be are deserving as much security protection as Brad and Angelina's sex life,” she wrote. “The dangerous part of this 'executive order' lies not in the triviality of a Super Bowl receiving taxpayer funded Secret Service protection – but in the convenience manufactured for any President desperate to hide deliberations of groups like the G-8, the G-20 and the World Trade Organization. The classification of such events as NSSE – insures the rich and powerful against any pesky accountability or transparency to the unwashed minions – namely the U.S. public. HR 347 & S. 1794 insulates such events as the G-8, WTO and presidential conventions against tough questions and politically justified protests.”

H.R. 347 follows other recent controversial government actions that restrict Americans’ civil rights. In March, the president signed Executive Order 13602 – the National Defense Resources Preparedness Order – which gives the federal government extraordinary rights to seize all manner of property or take virtually any actions it deems necessary in the interests of national security “in peacetime and in times of national emergency”—without defining either of these terms. Under the new directive, Obama may delegate broad authority to agency secretaries to commandeer all manner of material, including food, construction materials, livestock, fertilizer, farm equipment, energy, water resources, transportation (including private cars, boats and airplanes) and anything else considered necessary for “national defense.”

The Executive Order came on the heels of the $622 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Obama signed on New Year’s Eve. The NDAA annually funds the United States’ ongoing wars and the 900 military bases it maintains in 130 countries. This year’s version also provides for the U.S. president to have draconian worldwide authority to order the military to seize anyone suspected of “terrorism” or “providing aid to terrorists” or their “associated forces” anywhere in the world, including U.S. citizens on American soil, and detain them without charge or trial indefinitely. Indigenous Peoples worry that it could be used against them for asserting their rights to self-determination and sovereignty, or for protecting their lands and resources against exploitation by governments or corporations. Other opponents argue that the bill violates the U.S. Constitution, and protests against it have spread across the country as states, civil liberty and justice organizations join a rapidly growing nationwide movement.