Could protestors unknowingly run afoul of the Feds and face prison for exercising their First Amendment rights?
Yes, according to some analysts, and all that's needed is President Obama's signature for a new law to give the Secret Service powers more befitting the Praetorian Guard.
Even former 15-year Secret Service veteran Dan Bongino has raised alarms, as he told the Blaze that House Resolution 347 creates an America in which "you could accidentally be in a cordoned off secret service controlled area and find yourself in jail."
"This was done to send a message to both sides," Bongino said, "Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party" could be affected by this. "It's a very serious issue."
Bongino, who is a candidate for Senate in Maryland, added that "you have to ask yourself as an American, do you believe in liberty or not? You cannot have it both ways. You cannot empower government bureaucrats to take your liberty."
The concern about the new authority stems from the quietly-passed resolution, which according to Bongino and others has created a legal grey area that infringes upon freedom of speech. The devil, of course, is in the details.
Here are the facts: the House of Representatives passed a bill called the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act this past week. Ostensibly, the bill expands federal law protections for the areas near the president, vice president, and those under the protection of the Secret Service. For example, jumping over the fence at the White House and running across the lawn would be elevated to a federal crime once the bill is signed into law.
But there's more. Here is a section from the H.R 347:
"Whoever 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..."
By failing to include the term "willfully," the statute apparently changes the definition of Section 1752 of title 18, United States Code in such a way that one only has to be in a restricted area -- with or without prior knowledge of that fact -- to violate the law. This is arguably a change required in the mens rea (state of mind) necessary to commit the crime covered in the new statute.
So if you plan to protest at the next Obama, Romney or Santorum speech, you could unwittingly violate the statute and be thrown in jail for standing in a place the Secret Service deems specially protected.
Thus Reason.com has written that "a more truthful moniker for HR 347 would be the "First Amendment Rights Eradication Act." While that description goes a bit far, Congressman Amash, one of the three lone votes against the bill, also wrote the following on his Facebook page:
"Current law makes it illegal to enter or remain in an area where certain government officials (more particularly, those with Secret Service protection) will be visiting temporarily if and only if the person knows it's illegal to enter the restricted area but does so anyway. The bill expands current law to make it a crime to enter or remain in an area where an official is visiting even if the person does not know it's illegal to be in that area and has no reason to suspect it's illegal. (It expands the law by changing "willfully and knowingly" to just "knowingly" with respect to the mental state required to be charged with a crime.)"
And it's not just conservatives who are concerned about what the interpretations of this bill could mean for liberty. Leftwing opinion site Salon.com posed its objection this way in a blog post:
"At 7:03pm ET on Tuesday, 28 February 2012, our 112th Congress violated this covenant with the American people by voting 399 to 3 in favor of H.R. 347, a bill which breezed through the Senate with unanimous consent and now lacks only corporate... puppet President Barack Obama's signature to become law. The three patriots who voted Nay were Paul Broun, Justin Amash, and Ron Paul."
Of course, most on the Hill and inside the Beltway think the objections are hogwash. Michael Mahassey, the communications director for the bill's sponsor, Rep. Thomas J.Rooney (R-Florida), told Reason.com that the negative reaction to the bill is "a whole lot of kerfuffle over nothing. This doesn’t affect anyone’s right to protest anywhere at any time. Ever.”
Whether or not the interpretation of the bill that caused three Congressman to vote against it is correct, H.R. 347 bears some similarities to the NDAA "Indefinite Detention" Bill in that vague verbiage has led some to believe that serious infringements on basic liberties could result.
And amidst all this discussion, there is also the growing sense that federal officials seem increasingly imperious to those they govern. Spend a few days in Washington DC and you will often see traffic stopped and enormous motorcades of agents armed for a warzone ferrying officials of all kinds across town.
This clip from DillonAero gives you a taste of what kind of firepower could be cruising along as part of a motorcade:
Regardless, as President Obama makes dozens of fundraising visits on the campaign trail this year, citizens can expect massive traffic and pedestrian delays, and perhaps if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time -- federal criminal charges under H.R. 347.