In post-Occupy America, it’s often hard to know whether new citizen protest laws signal the end of free speech or a mere tweak of the machine. That looks to be the case with the new anti-protest bill that passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly two weeks ago and was signed into law by the president soon thereafter. On its face, the new legislation doesn’t change a whole lot. Yet the Occupy protesters are in an uproar that the bill both targets them and also signals a radical shift in free speech law. Almost nobody else seems to have noticed it at all. Who’s right?
That all depends on what you want to protest and where.
H.R. 347, benignly titled the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, passed the House 399-3. Such a lopsided vote suggests that nobody in Congress is bothered by this, on either side of the aisle. When President Obama signed it on March 8, almost nobody seems to have cared.
Simply put, the way the bill will “improve” public grounds is by moving all those unsightly protesters elsewhere. The law purports to update an old law, Section 1752 of Title 18 of the United States Code, that restricted areas around the president, vice president, or any others under the protection of the Secret Service. The original law was enacted in 1971 and amended in 2006. At first blush, the big change here is that while the old law made it a federal offense to "willfully and knowingly" enter a restricted space, now prosecutors need only show that you did it "knowingly"—that you knew the area was restricted, even if you didn’t know it was illegal to enter the space. This has been characterized in some quarters as a small technical change that hardly warrants an arched eyebrow, much less a protest.
But it’s important to understand what has changed since the original law was enacted in 1971, because it shows how much a tiny tweak to the intent requirement in a statute can impact the free speech of everyone.
For one thing, the law makes it easier for the government to criminalize protest. Period. It is a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison to protest anywhere the Secret Service might be guarding someone. For another, it’s almost impossible to predict what constitutes “disorderly or disruptive conduct” or what sorts of conduct authorities deem to “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”
The types of events and individuals warranting Secret Service protection have grown exponentially since the law was enacted in 1971. Today, any occasion that is officially defined as a National Special Security Event 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 that brings us to the real problem with the change to the old protest law. Instead of turning on a designated place, the protest ban turns on what persons and spaces are deemed to warrant Secret Service protection. It’s a perfect circle: The people who believe they are important enough to warrant protest can now shield themselves from protestors. No wonder the Occupy supporters are worried. In the spirit of “free speech zones,” this law creates another space in which protesters are free to be nowhere near the people they are protesting.
Consider that more than 6,700 people have been arrested at Occupy events since last September. Thus, while these changes to the law are not the death of free speech, they aren’t as trivial as the administration would have you believe. Rather, they are part of an incremental and persistent effort by the government to keep demonstrators away from events involving those at the top of the political food chain.
Let’s start by recalling that political speech—of the sort you might direct toward Newt Gingrich or Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, both of whom merit Secret Service protection—is what the First Amendment most jealously protects. Demonstrators can almost never be muzzled based on what it is they want to say. The First Amendment also has a special solicitude for speech in what are called traditional public fora. There is a presumed right of access to streets, sidewalks, and public parks for the purpose of engaging in political discussion and protest. And while the government can always impose reasonable limits on demonstrations to ensure public order, that power comes with a caveat: It must never be used to throttle unpopular opinion or to discriminate against disfavored speakers. That is a powerful caveat: The degree of slack a court will cut any given restriction on public protest will rest on whether the government appears to be acting even handedly.
Restrictions that apply equally to all subjects and all points of view will usually be approved by the courts if they are narrowly designed to advance a significant governmental interest, such as public safety. But protest restrictions that discriminate based on subject or viewpoint must be absolutely necessary to serve a compelling state interest. Courts rarely permit them.