US President Barack Obama has now signed his name to the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act (H.R. 347) - a bill that makes it a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to protest anywhere the Secret Service might be guarding someone.
This law strikes a blow against freedom of assembly, freedom of protest, and freedom of speech - rights guaranteed to Americans in the US Constitution. In the name of ensuring public order and protecting the security of people in power, H.R. 347 throttles unpopular opinion and discriminates against disfavored speakers.
Last year, when the US House of Representatives first voted in favor of H.R. 347, only you three lawmakers opposed it. We ask that you use your influence to bring this undemocratic bill back up for debate during the next legislative session.
On it's face, it may seem that H.R. 347 doesn't change a whole lot. The law purports to update an old law - Section 1752 of Title 18 of the United States Code - that restricted areas around the president, vice president, or any others under the protection of the Secret Service. The old law made it a federal offense to "willfully and knowingly" enter a restricted space. Now prosecutors need only show that you did it "knowingly"—that you knew the area was restricted - even if you didn't know it was illegal to enter the space.
Just a small tweak you say? Actually, this change impacts the free speech of everyone.
Because secret service agents are now dispatched at sporting events, state funerals, inaugural addresses, and NATO and G-8 Summits, this law criminalizes dissent in the United States at a broad range of venues. Additionally, 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."
Supporters of H.R. 347 would like you to
believe that demonstrators are
not truly being silenced; they are merely being denied access to the location of their
choice and the opportunity to deliver their message in the same forum and at the same time as the speaker they oppose.
But that is exactly why we should care.
Whatever protestors have come to say, the presence of
dissenters at these events carries a powerful message in and of itself that cannot be delivered as powerfully in
any other place.
Protests disrupt the constructed, patriotic image that media will capture of the event, and replace it with the reality of a divided country where individuals have the right to freely express their opinions - whether politician or average citizen.