The First Amendment is being ground down before our eyes. This isn’t a novel claim coming from the staff of a California college newspaper, but bear with us.
On March 8, President Obama signed the Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, an innocent-enough sounding piece of legislation. A one-sentence briefing from the White House’s press secretary said little more than that the law would make it a crime to enter or remain knowingly on White House grounds without proper authorization.
What that press release—and what all but three members of the U.S. Congress—will fail to tell you is that the bill contains a sweeping and freedom-stifling revision to federal legislation from 1971 which already restricts the right to stage a protest or other “disturbance” in an event or function covered by the Secret Service.
Where before, demonstrators were only committing a crime if they “willfully and knowingly” crashed an event attended by the President, or any other function requiring Secret Service protection (when foreign heads of state visit the U.S., when presidential candidates hit the campaign trail, during the Democratic and Republican national conventions), the 2011 version of the law only requires that the demonstrators be “knowingly’ present in such a restricted area.
Critics say this isn’t a trivial word change. The colloquially known “Trespass bill”, “Anti-Occupy bill”, or “Anti-protest bill” in its present form frees up the removal of protesters from any physical area covered by the law, even places where the President, Vice President and other nationally significant dignitaries will be temporarily visiting, whether demonstrators know they are in a restricted area or not. Could downtown San Francisco be closed to protests for months on end just because nationally important and protected individuals happen to be visiting the City? This law makes an environment ripe for violating speech freedoms
This sweeping power to smother pre-emptively—and with little to no public notice—the constitutionally outlined freedom to peacefully assemble is just one of a series of noxious steps taken by the current President’s administration that reduce our individual rights one by one.
To cite one other example, the Attorney General tried unsuccessfully to explain away the assassination of an American suspected of cooperating with terrorist organization. In his attempted justification, Mr. Holder laughingly said that due process—recognized as a basic right not just for American citizens but for anyone under American jurisdiction—was not the same as “judicial process”. This entirely new and absurd distinction does away with American legal protection of the right to a fair trial, and opens the door for the capricious assassination of other Americans by the government.
Government gestures like these with potentially grave consequences against civil freedoms need an immediate and conscious response. Even if the Trespass law is abused, as it may well be, it will be hard to arrest an entire throng of people crowding Market Street and peacefully resisting the establishment of no-free speech zones. But for that to happen, Americans need first to be aware of —indeed, they have the responsibility to know—what is exactly the government is doing “for” them.