Free speech is not a tug-of-war
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On March 9, President Obama signed into law the “Federal Restricted Building and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” which has been making headlines as the “anti-protest” law. Many bloggers are railing that this law places limitations on free speech because it could be used to curtail protest locations all over the country.
After some Internet research, I learned the law is actually only a slight revision of an existing trespassing law. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the original version made it illegal for individuals to “willfully and knowingly” engage in actions that would “disrupt the orderly conduct of government” in restricted areas overseen by the Secret Service.
The big change in the amended version signed March 9 was the removal of the word “willfully” from the law.
Big deal, right? It’s one word. But removing “willfully” opens up the playing field, allowing the Secret Service to apply this law in a much broader fashion. Critics of the law say it could legally be applied to protesters as well as bystanders who may not even know they are violating the law.
According to the ACLU, in legalese, the phrase “willfully and knowingly” means in order for a person to be found guilty, it must be proven that they knew what they were doing was illegal and did it anyway.
The ACLU explains that after the removal of “willfully,” the Secret Service can arrest anyone who enters a restricted area, even if they didn’t know entering was illegal. The law mentions The White House and the vice president’s official residence specifically, but applies anywhere a person protected by the Secret Service is located/staying, and anywhere a special event of “national significance” is taking place.
The main concern over this law seems to be that the Secret Service and/or their charges will abuse it. What constitutes a “disruption” to government is not explained in the law; and while restricting access to protected individuals might be intended as a safety measure, protesters could legally be corralled in certain areas, suppressing their media coverage — er, message.
The biggest problem I have with the amended law is, while its wording doesn’t technically violate free speech, it creates shadowy loopholes. And it absolutely disgusts me that the government is willing to even approach bending the rules in this instance, when little more than a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church’s practice of protesting at servicemen’s funerals was protected under the First Amendment.
I simply don’t understand how it’s all right to put side-stepping, vaguely worded restrictions on free speech when it comes keeping protesters away from government officials, when the families of fallen soldiers are not entitled to be protected. After all, those fallen soldiers died to keep our rights — including, ironically, the rights of the Westboro parishioners — intact.
And the scope of the amended law is huge. The Secret Service’s restricted areas apply anywhere a protected person is staying or visiting. I’m not going to go over every instance where such protection is warranted, but by executive order, the president can assign Secret Service protection to anyone he wants. And in the days leading up to the presidential election, Republican candidates and their families will have it.
So, what if a group of protesters approaches Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum? What if their protective contingent determines the protesters to be disruptive?
No one can predict how the Secret Service will interpret this “anti-protest” law or how strictly it will be enforced, but I fervently hope all parties involved respect the First Amendment, and don’t try to throw their weight around just to push boundaries.
It would be absolutely maddening if government officials abuse this law to protect themselves from unpleasant messages and inconveniences, when the families of young men and women who died for our country are forced to listen to protests slandering their fallen heroes.