Congress has just made it easier to arrest and convict those who exercise their 1st Amendment rights of protest and assembly.
A number of articles have recently appeared on the web concerning the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” a bill recently passed by Congress which makes it a criminal offense to “impede or disrupt” the activities of the President, Vice President or anyone under the immediate protection of the Secret Service. The measure also makes it illegal to engage in “disorderly behavior” at a special event of “national significance” or in the proximity of a “restricted building or grounds.” Anyone who violates a provision of the proposed statute is subject to fine, imprisonment of up to 10 years, or both.
In short, Congress figures it would be a good idea to keep tight rein on anyone who demonstrates a bit too energetically about the decisions coming out of Washington DC or the people who make them.
But more interesting than the content of the new bill is the fact that the “Restricted Buildings and Grounds Act” already exists as federal law. It is legislation which has been around since the late 60’s, making the same threats against protesters and imposing the same penalties. So the obvious question is: what prompted Congress to unearth and amend this decades-old measure?
A careful reading of the amended Act makes the intentions of DC politicians very clear. Without going into the legalese involved, with the clever deletion of just one word from the 1960’s Act, Congress has made it MUCH easier to convict anyone who federal prosecutors believe to have violated its terms.
Prior to the new language, prosecutors were generally required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a protester standing in the wrong place or saying unpopular things KNEW that his activities were against the law–knew that he had “violated a known legal duty.” Not the easiest burden of proof for the state.
But under the terms of the revised Act, federal prosecutors will only have to prove that the offender intended the result of his actions and knew that the particular result was likely to occur. In other words, it will only be necessary to show that a protester shouting into a megaphone both knew his conduct would be “disruptive” and intended it to be just that. Clearing the streets of those who don’t appreciate ‘The One’ will be a snap.
And, in the new Act, it seems all of those prosecutors will work for the Department of Justice. Under the old legislation, state law and jurisdiction took precedence. But now, all violations of the Act will be prosecuted in federal court, according to federal law. Maybe Congress doesn’t trust the states to enforce the law in quite the right way, at the right time, or against the right people!
So given that the new Act features broad descriptions of illegal behavior and a reduced burden of proof for federal prosecutors, it seems clear that DC politicians are doing everything in their power to legislate a pleasant, non-confrontational campaign season for themselves! Especially, perhaps, at the White House level.
It will be interesting to see if the revised statute will be used to combat the well-known lunacy of professional protesters expected to overrun Chicago this summer during the G8 summit. Then again, the threat of prison might be reserved for the protection of the Democrat president from those dangerous, middle aged Tea Partiers!
Time will tell.