American law slowly takes away the right to protest
By: Caitlin McKay, Staff Writer
Within the American identity is a claim to be the international protectors of individual rights, freedoms and democracy. However, their perceived role on the global stage is not being backed by action in their own country. In fact, new policies about protests suggest that America might be moving towards anti-freedom and democracy. American policy makers are not walking the walk, which undermines their credibility with the public.President Obama signed H.R. 347, or better known as the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, in 2011. This act makes it illegal to knowingly enter and remain on the grounds of a protected building. At first glance, this seems like a sensible and logical act to implement. Once scrutinized however, it’s evident that this new law doesn’t meet democratic principles.
In 1998, former president Bill Clinton signed the Presidential Decision Elective, establishing the National Special Security Events (NSSE). This act would allow Homeland Security to determine whether certain events were a threat for terrorism or criminal activity. If a threat was deemed strong enough, then the event would be considered a NSSE. Such events can include the Presidential Inauguration, world summits, diplomatic visits, and presidential nomination conventions. And whatever security concerns there were around the Superbowl XXXVI. When an event is designated as a NSSE, the United States Secret Service is put in charge of security. As you can imagine, full security measures were put in place, including black tuxes and snipers watching from roofs. Until 2011, that was how important events were handled.
Then, conveniently after the Occupy Movement (but no one is officially confirming that), United States Representative, Tom Rooney introduced H.R. 347, or the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. While the title might put citizens to sleep, the implications of it will jolt them awake.
This dully-titled act amends 18 U.S.C SS. 1752, Restricted Buildings or Grounds. Sounds incredibly dull right? No one wants to pay attention to what buildings he or she are and are not allowed into. However, the minor amendments to the law have some very serious implications that all Americans should pay attention to.
Rooney’s bill, back in 2011, proposed to remove the word willfully from the existing law. Before it, the secret service could only arrest a protester if that citizen knowingly and willfully entered a restricted area. In plain language, a protestor had to have entered a restricted building, knowing that it was under protection and remained there anyways. That is the willful part. Now, with the removal of the word ”willfully”, a trespasser can be arrested and charged even if they did not know they were in a restricted area.
Now that you have the basic understanding of what this new act means, hopefully it’s clear how H.R 347 affects basic rights.
U.S. Representative Justin Amash, one of the few United States Representatives to oppose the act, explained in a public statement to the press, “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 its illegal.”
This change could discourage potential protests from happening because protesters fear getting arrested.
Jeanine Molloff, a writer for the Huffington Post, further elaborated that, “…it potentially makes peaceable protest anywhere in the U.S. a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.”
Opponents to the act say it infringes on the first, second, fourth and sixth amendments.
For those of you who are not well versed in American law, here’s a breakdown for you: the Bill of Rights refers to the collective ten amendments made to the United States Constitution. While the second, fourth and sixth amendments are important, H.R. 347’s most outrageous violation is the right to expression, which is the first amendment.
The right to expression is fairly broad concept, but it includes an American’s right to free speech and peacefully assembly. According to this amendment, it’s within an American’s right to be critical of the government and to express that criticism through assembly. Basically, it’s a right to protest.
The ability and freedom to protest is fundamental to a democratic and accountable government. If citizens are unhappy with the current leadership, they should be able to take it to the streets, so long as it’s peaceful.
With the removal of the word ”willfully,” the onus is on the citizen to know which areas are restricted and which are not. Theoretically, a tourist could enter a restricted area and be arrested for trespassing. Some family vacation, eh?