On March 8, US president Barack Obama signed his name to H.R. 347, The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 — commonly referred to as the “Trespass Bill” or the “Anti-Occupy Bill” — which criminalizes protests under certain circumstances. Many are calling the bill an attack on Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech.
Under the bill, knowingly entering an area that is under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service and “engag[ing] in disorderly or disruptive conduct” or “imped[ing] or disrupt[ing] the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions” could now be considered a federal offense. The language of the bill is slightly more restrictive than that of the previous legislation, which stated it was only an offense to knowingly and willingly commit such an offense.
The new bill has been criticized due to the fact that citizens may now be arrested for entering areas they did not even know were restricted. The U.S. government may now press charges against protesters, demonstrators or activists at political events across the country.
What this means is that relatively harmless occurrences like glitter-bombing, to which several of the Republican presidential hopefuls have already fallen victim, or even remaining in a restricted area that he didn’t even know was restricted could potentially land a perpetrator with federal charges.
RT reports that Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund tells the International Business Times the new bill “means it’s easier to prosecute under ‘knowingly,’” instead of both knowingly and willfully, “which is an issue because someone could knowingly enter a restricted area but not necessarily realize they are committing a crime.”
In an interview with Indiana’s News & Tribune, Verheyden-Hilliard further acknowledged the bill’s vagueness, questioning what, exactly, “disorderly or disruptive conduct” entailed.
“When people are having demonstrations and shouting and chanting, I mean, are the Secret Service or the police going to say that that’s disrupting orderly conduct? If somebody gets up at a convention and unfurls a banner, as has happened at past conventions, are they going to say that that’s a violation under this law?” she asked.
While she does see the bill as cause for concern, Verheyden-Hilliard stopped short of calling the bill the end of First Amendment rights. “The fact is that if it were ending First Amendment rights, it would have ended them in 2006,” she told the News & Tribune.
So while the bill is considered by many to be an attack on the First Amendment, it is not the amendment’s death knell as some believe it to be.
Along with the changes to the language regarding conduct, the bill also strikes “willfully” from the language regarding the entering of certain buildings, making it a federally-prosecutable offense to only knowingly and without lawful authority enter: “(1) the White House or its grounds or the Vice President’s official residence or its grounds, (2) a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting, or (3) a building or grounds so restricted due to a special event of national significance.”
Again, while this language does not create any new laws it does make it easier to prosecute on existing ones, and with harsher penalties.
Still, opponents of the bill feel it is yet another attempt to silence those with views opposite the government’s, that its passage was spurred by the Occupy movement, and that it puts the U.S. a step closer to eliminating its people’s right to free speech. They also question why the bill and its passage have been largely ignored by the media, and speculate that its passage happened so quickly and overwhelmingly (the final House vote was 399-3) as an attempt to stifle demonstrations leading up to and during the upcoming party conventions.
For further explanation of H.R. 347, check out the video below: