Protesters Restricted by Congress

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On March 9 President Barack Obama signed bill H.R. 347 which would criminalize protesters who trespass restricted areas.

The bill, also known as the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, makes it a federal crime to enter or remain knowingly in any restricted area of the White House, the Vice President’s official residence, or their respective grounds without lawful authority.

Yet buildings or grounds where the President is visiting, or spaces where anyone under Secret Service protection is present are also included in the list of restricted areas. The original law, unchanged by H.R. 347, made certain conduct with respect to these restricted areas a crime, including trespassing. According to the documents of the bill, actions in or near the restricted area that would “disrupt the orderly conduct of Government, and [block] the entrance or exit to the restricted area” are also prohibited.

Government officials were in complete favor of this bill. The US House of Representatives voted 388-to-3 in favor of H.R. 347 on February 27.

Critics have said the bill challenges the First Amendment because it allows government officials to arrest protesters if they are within a “restricted area,” without even being aware of it.

Senior politics major at USF and Occupy protester, Raffi Bezdikian, said he understands there is a justification for President Obama and the government to enact a law like this.

“Yes, glitter-bombing can be construed as “assault” , and anytime someone acts out of line by jumping the fence at the White House or doing something more threatening, it could be seen as a justification for this type of legislation. However, these are exceptions to the rule,” Bezdikian said.

Alluding to a possible disconnect between government and public opinion on the Bill of Rights Bezdikian added, “To them [the government], the First Amendment seems to be more of a privilege. Laws like this do a disservice to America by stifling the voice of the people: the most legitimate voice of governance in a country.”
The politics student also rose a concern regarding the enactment of policies by politicians whose history contradicts their legislative actions.

“I wonder why my president would sign this kind of law into place when he himself was a community organizer. That job literally depends on the First Amendment. Old Obama probably would have protested this law just like I am now,” Bezdikian said.
Performing Arts professor Francesca Rivera, who is currently teaching a class on Music and Social Protests, said the protection of civil liberties is not a major interest to Congress.

“I personally see this as one part of a trend that has been a part of our political landscape since the 9/11 anti-freedom mania that swept the country in 2001. I knew then that the Patriot Act would only be the beginning,” Rivera said, “I don’t think this particular act will have much of an effect on protest. It may mean more protesters do things to get arrested on purpose, actually, and that could be a good thing for protest in general. Note George Clooney’s big grin and the crowd encouraging him on as he got arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy last week.”

The actor George Clooney was arrested at Sudan’s embassy in Washington on March 17 at a protest, after he ignored three police warnings to leave the embassy grounds. George Clooney then reported to US congress he witnessed a campaign of murder conducted in Sudan.

Yet, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) was one of the the many Congress members who supported the act. “This bill will improve the law enforcement tools available to the Secret Service in its attempts to protect the President, the Vice President, and others on a day-to-day basis by closing loopholes in the current federal law,” Senator Blumenthal said in a press release, “The new law should punish and deal more effectively with anyone who illegally enters restricted areas to threaten the President, Vice President, or other Secret Service protectees.”
Although critics show concern that this law will affect their First Amendment rights as citizens, it is currently unknown how the law will be used by law enforcement, such as the Secret Service.

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