You Can’t Occupy This
The government says the anti-protest bill was just a small tweak of the existing law. Don’t believe it.
H.R. 347, benignly titled the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, passed the House 399-3. Such a lopsided vote suggests that nobody in Congress is bothered by this, on either side of the aisle. When President Obama signed it on March 8, almost nobody seems to have cared.
But it’s important to understand what has changed since the original law was enacted in 1971, because it shows how much a tiny tweak to the intent requirement in a statute can impact the free speech of everyone.
For one thing, the law makes it easier for the government to criminalize protest. Period. It is a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison to protest anywhere the Secret Service might be guarding someone. For another, it’s almost impossible to predict what constitutes “disorderly or disruptive conduct” or what sorts of conduct authorities deem to “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”
The types of events and individuals warranting Secret Service protection have grown exponentially since the law was enacted in 1971. Today, any occasion that is officially defined as a National Special Security Event calls for Secret Service protection. NSSE’s can include basketball championships, concerts, and the Winter Olympics, which have nothing whatsoever to do with government business, official functions, or improving public grounds. Every Super Bowl since 9/11 has been declared an NSSE.
And that brings us to the real problem with the change to the old protest law. Instead of turning on a designated place, the protest ban turns on what persons and spaces are deemed to warrant Secret Service protection. It’s a perfect circle: The people who believe they are important enough to warrant protest can now shield themselves from protestors. No wonder the Occupy supporters are worried. In the spirit of “free speech zones,” this law creates another space in which protesters are free to be nowhere near the people they are protesting.