Outrage over 'anti-Occupy' bill is misguided but not unwarranted

Outrage over 'anti-Occupy' bill is misguided but not unwarranted

Reprinted from News and Tribune

From Zuccotti Park in New York to the violence in Oakland to the entryway of a Louisville bank, the Occupy movement has put protests on everyone’s mind lately, and Congress is no exception.

There has been an outcry during the last few weeks against what has been dubbed the anti-Occupy bill, or HR 347.

Writers claimed the bill would make protests illegal. One article from Feb. 29 on RT.com headlined “Goodbye, First Amendment: ‘Trespass Bill’ will make protest illegal,” reported the bill would make it a federal offense to disrupt a government function if Secret Service was on the scene. The article, like many others decrying the bill, went on to explain that because the president and presidential candidates receive Secret Service protection, that would mean, “a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense.”

Like any person who considers himself or herself a journalist, I am a fervent defender of First Amendment rights, so I immediately started working on a story about it. I called the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and constitutional law professors. Then I found Natasha Lennard’s article on Salon.com headlined “Inside that new anti-Occupy bill.” In the article, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, explains that HR 347 is not really a new law, but rather an amendment to laws established in 2006.

So I called Verheyden-Hilliard to clear things up.

She explained that HR 347 is actually an amendment to title 18 of the U.S. code, section 1752, which is a law related to restricted buildings or grounds that has been on the books, in one form or another, for many decades. In 2006, significant amendments were made to the law, which include much of the language that caused the Internet commotion that started me on this trail in the first place.

The 2006 changes to the law allow the government to create moveable zones around special national security events with special restrictions, instead of just fixed locations.

The recent bill mainly proposes two changes to this already existing law.

One of those changes is the addition of the White House and its grounds and the vice president’s residence and its grounds to the list of fixed locations. There are already restrictions on demonstrations on the White House sidewalk, but Verheyden-Hilliard believes the new amendment just sort of expands the Secret Service protectorate area there.

The other change is really just the removal of the word willfully. Under the existing law, for someone to be prosecuted, they would have had to have done at least one of four specified illegal actions both willfully and knowingly. The first of those actions is basically being in one of those restricted zones without the authority to be there. The second and third are pretty similar and both deal with disrupting the orderly conduct of government business. The fourth is knowingly engaging in an act of physical violence on a person or property in the restricted zone.

In the existing law, a person would have had to have willfully and knowingly done one of those things. The new bill takes out the word willfully, leaving only knowingly. It’s a minor change, but, “To some extent that obviously lowers the bar for prosecutors,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

And as for making it illegal to protest?

“The fact is that if it were ending First Amendment rights, it would have ended them in 2006,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

That kind of took the wind out of my sails. I no longer had a story about Congress overwhelmingly approving a law that infringes upon our First Amendment rights.

Or did I?

“Don’t get me wrong,” Verheyden-Hilliard said. “I don’t think this is a good law or not a law to worry about.”

The problem with this law and the proposed bill is that they allow people to be punished with a fine or imprisonment up to a year for knowingly impeding or disrupting the orderly conduct of government business or official functions.

“What does that mean?” Verheyden-Hilliard said. “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?”

I remember my dad telling me a long time ago that when a government wants to take away people’s rights, they won’t do it suddenly. You won’t go to sleep one night with all the freedoms that make this country great and wake up the next morning with laws that take away those rights. They’ll chip away at them, slowly. As soon as the outrage against one swing at the tree of liberty dies down, they’ll take another swing.

Some people might think it’s silly that there was such an outcry against a bill that was basically already on the books. I think it’s sad that a bill that muddies the water surrounding our First Amendment freedoms is already there.