The way our rights are lost is not by sweeping action, but by the slow creep of laws and regulations like the tide coming in. Any single wave does not reveal the fact that within hours, sand that is dry and on land will be submerged by the ocean. You may be able to explain away this regulation that limits speech, or that law that discourages press, but the fact is that these “little” things will eventually render the First amendment non-existent.
This is why I would like to draw your attention to H.R. 347, a bill passed by the House and Senate, then signed by the President, which essentially created zones where exercising your freedom of speech could mean committing a felony, and land you in jail for up to ten years (if you are also exercising your Second Amendment right) or a year if you are unarmed. Anywhere where the Secret Service is working would be considered a “restricted building or grounds”.
Part of the law deals with “knowingly entering” a restricted space, and another section talks about knowingly engaging “in any act of physical violence” against a person or in an area protected by the Secret Service. Notice that these two things will be used to justify the bill, even though they are both already illegal without H.R. 347. Here’s the section that infringes on our right to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, all enshrined in the First Amendment. Whoever:
(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
‘(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds;
Classic obscure writing style, just vague enough to confuse many, but just specific enough to land innocent people in jail for protesting. So if the Secret Service is at an event, or in an area protecting anyone, if you “disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business” then you have violated this law, and could face imprisonment for a year, if you are not carrying a weapon, 10 years if you are carrying a weapon. The bill goes on to define “restricted building or grounds”, and “other person protected by the Secret Service”, but does not define “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions”. This means that the Secret Service could deem yelling through a bull horn, chanting, holding signs, or crowding a politician as breaking this law. Your right to protest near certain politicians or government events is therefore gone.
But many do not realize that the Secret Service does not just protect the President; their scope has been broadened to extend even to events which have nothing to do with government. According to Snopes.com:
Today, any occasion that is officially defined as a National Special Security Event (NSSE) calls for Secret Service protection. NSSE’s can include basketball championships, concerts, and the Winter Olympics, which have nothing whatsoever to do with government business, official functions, or improving public grounds. Every Super Bowl since 9/11 has been declared an NSSE.
And the definition in H.R. 347 for “restricted building or grounds” includes any areas:
(B) of a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting; or
‘(C) of a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance;
This means that the authorities have the ability and legal cover to arrest and charge anyone at any event where the Secret Service is working (including the Superbowl) who has knowingly attempted to “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions”. Again this section has no definition, so “official functions” could be essentially anything. Technically if you were at a Superbowl and a fan was being removed, yelling at the officials removing the fan, or getting in their way, could make you a felon, and land you in jail for a year.
I was unaware how close I have come to being a felon. Outside the Republican National Convention last year, I filmed some events, wondering why such a large area was cordoned off. Since the Secret Service was present protecting Candidate Romney, had I snuck into a cordoned off area (which included a half mile radius of normally public streets, and sidewalks around the Convention center), I could have been arrested and charged with a felony, and spent a year in jail. Just a few steps separated me from committing a federal offense.
Earlier that year I was at the NRA convention in St. Louis where Mitt Romney also spoke. Well this could have landed some folks in the federal slammer for ten years, since almost everyone was carrying firearms, it being a National Rifle Convention. Now if some of these folks spotted Romney and began to yell at him, protest some of his positions, or stand in the way of where his entourage was heading, this would have violated H.R. 347 and allowed a protester to be charged, along with the more serious sentencing because they had a weapon on them, regardless of the fact that the weapon was not used. This law could land completely innocent people who rightfully think their actions and words are protected by the First Amendment in jail for 10 years.
What this law has done is create “no-free-speech” zones around politicians and at certain events. This is an attempt to create a cushy bubble around the very people who deserve the most to hear the people’s dissatisfaction with where this country is heading. You have got to wonder where our rights have gone when we have to worry about where we are, and what our proximity is to particular people in order to be free from prosecution, just for exercising our first amendment rights. This is a large step towards outlawing speaking out against public officials. This is how our rights erode, by slipping in an insidious bill, an then broadening its scope over time. If tomorrow the Secret Service is tasked with protecting every federal building and all federal property, then we will have lost the right to protest altogether.