Constitutional lawyer John Whitehead warns about new rules that violate the First Amendment.
Congresspeople are doing their best to separate themselves from an increasingly unhappy electorate.
Unfortunately, with gas prices rising, the economy tanking, the increasingly unpopular war effort dragging on and public approval of Congress at an all-time low, members of Congress have been working hard to keep their unhappy constituents at a distance—avoiding town-hall meetings, making minimal public appearances while at home in their districts, only appearing at events in controlled settings where they’re the only ones talking, and if they must interact with constituents, doing so via telephone town meetings or impromptu visits to local businesses where the chances of being accosted by angry voters are greatly minimized.
Town hall meetings are especially risky, for attendees have cell phones that record videos. Videos can get posted on YouTube. Technology is working against them.
Consider that in the summer of 2011, 60 percent of Congress refused to hold town hall meetings with their constituents during their summer break. The ones who did often charged a fee for attendance. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan charged fifteen dollars per person for his public appearance, and Rep. Dan Quayle charged 35 dollars per person.
Congress has now apptoved of legislation that will keep prtotesters a football fireld’s distance from them.
The Trespass Bill (the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011) creates a roving “bubble” zone or perimeter around select government officials and dignitaries (anyone protected by the Secret Service), as well as any building or grounds “restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.”
The bill’s language is so overly broad as to put an end to free speech, political protest and the right to peaceably assemble in all areas where government officials happen to be present. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was one of only three members of the House of Representatives to vote against the legislation. As he explains:
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.
Some government officials may need extraordinary protection to ensure their safety. But criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activity—even if that activity is annoying to those government officials—violates our rights. I voted “no.” It passed 388-3.
Specifically, the bill, which now awaits President Obama’s signature, levies a fine and up to a year in prison against anyone found in violation, and if the person violating the statute is carrying a “dangerous weapon,” the prison sentence is bumped up to no more than ten years. Thus, a person eating in a diner while a presidential candidate is trying to score political points with the locals could be arrested if government agents determine that he is acting “disorderly.” Mind you, depending on who’s making the assessment, anything can be considered disorderly, including someone exercising his right to free speech by muttering to himself about a government official. And if that person happens to have a pocketknife or nail clippers in his possession (or any other innocuous item that could be interpreted by the police as “dangerous”), he could face up to ten years in prison.
The Secret Service also protects Congress.
The authoritarian mindset undergirding these roving bubble zones is no different from that which gave rise to “free speech zones,” which are government-sanctioned areas located far away from government officials, into which activists and citizens are herded at political rallies and events. Both zones, however, have the same end result: dissent is muted or silenced altogether, and the centers of power are shielded from the citizen.
Free speech zones have become commonplace at political rallies and the national conventions of both major political parties. One of the most infamous free speech zones was erected at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Not so much a zone of free expression as a cage, it was a space enclosed by chain link fences, Jersey walls, and razor wire. Judge Douglas Woodlock, who toured the free speech cage before the convention, noted, “One cannot conceive of other elements put in place to make a space more of an affront to the idea of free expression than the designated demonstration zone.”
Bubble zones and free speech zones, in essence, destroy the very purpose of the First Amendment, which assures us of the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. In other words, we, as citizens, have a constitutional right to address our government officials in a public manner so that they can hear our grievances or concerns. What these zones do, however, is create insulated barriers around public officials, thus keeping us out of sight and sound’s reach of those who are supposed to represent us. Many prominent activists, from Occupiers, to the Tea Party, from anti-war protestors and so on, will be shut out from the view of public officials under this legislation. These zones also serve a secondary purpose, which is to chill free speech by intimidating citizens into remaining silent.
The noose is tightening.