Thursday, March 22, 2012

Constitutional Rights Lawyer: First Amendment Debate Sparked by H.R. 347 Retricted Buildings Act

My brother sent me an interesting link the other day on H.R. 347, the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act," which is being referred to by some media outlets as the "antiprotest law" and causing a bit of an uproar.  

I tend to be a strong advocate of free speech, and I have argued a few First Amendment cases.  Politically, I'm neutral . I haven't been a huge fan of Obama based on how the space shuttle was retired and how the bailout programs were managed.  Also, however, I'm not in favor of any of the Republican candidates.

This is a run-of-the-mill disturbing the peace law, except that it becomes a felony if the violator is carrying a deadly weapon or causes significant bodily injury.  It is actually a law that has already been around for forty years, but the mens rea (state of mind) wording was recently changed in one sentence from "wilfully and knowingly" to just "knowingly." The change means, from my reading, that the violator needs a culpable state of mind, and must actually be aware they are entering a restricted area, but the violation doesn't have to be done "wilfully."  Although wilfully and knowingly basically mean the same exact thing, wilful, as a legal term, is sometimes looked as as "spiteful" and is a standard used in civil contempt applications where someone disregards a clear and unequivocal court order.

Basically, the law is intended to prevent unduly disruptive or dangerous conduct in restricted government areas.  A violation of the law is a misdemeanor, but a violation involving a firearm, or where someone is seriously injured, is a  felony with up to 10-years in jail.

Under this law, the White House  or other specifically designates areas are restricted areas, which cannot be knowingly entered without lawful authority.  People who are otherwise lawfully there (i.e. a whitehouse tour group, or the audience of a public address) cannot "knowingly and intentionally" "impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions" or "obstruct or impede ingress or egress." 

So, the take-home lesson is: don't trepass into restricted areas of the White House and, if you do, definitely don't carry a deadly weapon or maime someone while doing it.

Wherever you are in the country, there is probably a set of state or local disturbing the peace laws that are as broad or broader than this "antiprotest" law.   I can confidently say that the First Amendment does not prohibit the government from criminalizing sneaking deadly weapons into highly-restricted areas.  To the extent Federal Authorities ever attempted to apply this law in a manner that interferes with the right to peacefully assemble, the Courts are there to protect against that.

The coverage and discussion of this law is a good thing for the nation. It is the First Amendment at work.  Much of the discussion references the "occupy" protests, which presented unique and emerging constitutional issues, such as finding the appropriate level of police protection to balance between the competing interests of public safety and not chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights was one of them. 

Public discourse on constitutional rights shows that a lot of people have set a goal of improving the quality of life for themselves, their communities, the nation, and the world.  Much like the pursuit of happiness being referred to in the Declaration of Independence as a motivating factor for American independence, I think what we have seen develop is a public declaration that we want social progress.

Related Links:

- H.R. 347, the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act

- How Big a Deal is H.R. 347, That “Criminalizing Protest” Bill? 3/8/12, ACLU Blog, by Gabe Rottman

- Fox News, Obama Signs Bill In Secret Making Free Speach Illegal, Youtube Video

- Occupy DC protests H.R. 347, CNN iReport, By armandog8, March 13, 2012

- HR 347 'Trespass Bill' Criminalizes Protest, Huffington Post,
Op Ed by Jeanine Molloff, March 12, 2012

- Criminal Harassment (1/25/12 Post)

- First Amendment Civil Rights (6/11/11 Post)

- Constitutional Litigation (6/12/11 Post)

- Things That Are Not In The Constitution

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