Get ready for the protests. Get ready for the warm American spring — and maybe a hot summer and fall. Vast economic inequality has not disappeared and, in a presidential election year, the supremacy of money in politics will be extravagantly displayed.
But if you protest, also get ready for "free-speech zones," "pop-up" restricted areas, National Special Security Events, and — with the signing on March 8 by President Barack Obama of HR 347 — a suddenly sharper federal anti-protest law. Despite American constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to petition for redress of grievances, suppression of protest is just as American.
HR 347's title, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, suggests court-house landscaping, but its true impact cuts much deeper. Without debate, it flew through the Senate with unanimous consent. In the House, only three members voted against it, all Republican, most notably presidential candidate Ron Paul. The brief debate featured jokes about the Super Bowl.
But after its February passage, HR 347 caught the attention of lefty and libertarian bloggers. They saw it as the end of the right to protest and the beginning of outright fascism — with Occupy in its crosshairs. Their reaction reflects a political atmosphere in which the Obama administration is justifying assassinating American citizens without trial as a necessary part of the War on Terror.
The reality of HR 347 is more nuanced, say civil-liberties lawyers. Many months before Occupy Wall Street materialized, the bill had been introduced in Congress at the behest of the Secret Service, which protects the president, vice-president, and other dignitaries. And HR 347 doesn't make protest illegal. It just makes it riskier.
"Fairly histrionic," says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee, of the blogs and e-mails she has seen on HR 347. Although she thinks "a significant crackdown" on dissent is taking place, a "crescendo of fear" is the last thing that should happen because of HR 347. "People should be in the streets."
What's important to know, Verheyden-Hilliard says, is that HR 347 only makes worse "a terrible law" — Section 1752 of Title 18 of the United States Code. It's been around since 1971 and was strengthened in 2006.
Section 1752 prohibits people from "restricted" areas around the president, vice-president, and anyone else protected by the Secret Service. These other protectees — including presidential candidates, former presidents, and foreign heads of state — are common protest targets. The law also can be used at "special" national events like presidential nominating conventions. Violators could get a year in jail, 10 years if a weapon is involved.
Gabe Rottman, a Washington attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, says HR 347's most important provision makes it easier to prosecute protesters. Formerly, to be convicted of being in, or blocking the access to, a Secret Service–restricted area, or of engaging in "disorderly or disruptive conduct" inside or in "proximity" to a restricted area (or conspiring to do these things), the person had to do it "willfully and knowingly."
Now, it's only necessary to prove that the individual did it "knowingly" — that is, that the person knew she or he was in a restricted area, even if the person didn't know it was illegal to be there.