The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on ShockNetRadio.com.
A bill to make it a federal crime to protest at any event where Secret Service are present was signed into law by President Obama on March 8, 2012. The innocuously titled “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” according to the liberal and progressive media – what’s left of it in the US – would theoretically make it a crime to participate in any protest where the President orders Secret Service presence: such as at a G-8 Summit (which, fortunately for the participants, has moved their undemocratic policy-making to Camp David on May 18-19 from their original venue in Chicago).
The law, H.R. 347, also includes major public events, such as the Inauguration and Presidential campaign gatherings, but the insidious part is that it is within the President’s power to delegate Secret Service protection to anyone – the president of Bank of America, for instance – thereby squelching First Amendment rights of free speech and the lawful right of assembly, such as at an Occupy protest.
But is that what the law really says? H.R. 347 was introduced on January 19, 2011, by Florida Republican Representative Tom Rooney, whose spokesman denies any such dire results. Rooney’s communication director says the law, “doesn’t affect anyone’s right to protest anywhere at any time. Ever. ” “… right now it’s not a federal violation to jump the fence and run across the White House lawn, this bill makes it a federal violation.” And the mainstream media didn’t think it dangerous enough to liberty even to cover the signing of the law. The whole debate over the law remained under the radar of the even progressive media for over a year before becoming an issue. So what are we to think?
Well, it’s not my job, or anyone’s job, except maybe that of your religious leader, to tell you what to think. But I may be able to help you on how to think. I’ve read a measured response in the online magazine Salon and got an un-alarming take on the law from the ACLU. Salon says the only real changes are (1) making some instances of criminal trespass a federal crime rather than just a local crime and (2) where the law used to say that the person must have entered a restricted area “knowingly” and “willfully,” H.R. 347 willfully omits the word “willfully.” This means, even if you do not know that it’s illegal for you to be in a place, you can be arrested for remaining there.
The ACLU notes that the original bill passed in 1971 and the current version is a slight rewrite. The omission of “willfully” may make it easier for the Secret Service to overuse or misuse the statute to arrest lawful protesters, because now it is unnecessary to prove intent, but H.R. 347 doesn’t directly apply to Occupy protests.
I keep a small copy of the US Constitution on my desk, just where some people would keep a Bible, and I keep checking the First Amendment when I read about laws like H.R. 347. That Amendment says in part, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” And the real reason the ACLU promises to keep an eye on this law – and we should, too – pertains to the bigger mosaic of which H.R. 347 is only a tile.
Back when I was first able to read, the ink of the First Amendment looked pretty dark and strong. Today it’s looking faded and weak. H.R. 347 is not an out and out abridgment of our First Amendment rights. Like many other laws – from abortion restrictions to hate crimes laws to voting rights restrictions to gun control laws and so on – the tree of liberty is never torn out at its roots. Only its branches are trimmed. And I think it’s the same excuse those in power in this country have always used, as far back as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: national security.
It’s as if liberty is too precious to be trusted in the hands of the people. Like an antique car behind glass, we can look at it and take pictures of it. But the keys are locked up and each year it gets a little more difficult to persuade the keepers to let us take it out for a spin. What’s needed is not a test drive on a closed course by a professional driver: what’s needed is for the rest of us to take freedom and liberty out on the open road. We paid for the roads, after all.
I keep telling my brothers and sisters in the Freethought world the same thing I’m urging in the liberal-progressive world: try to remain calm. Yes, we need to push back against encroachments on our religious liberties, just as we need to push back against encroachments on our civil liberties. But this is not the end of days. We need to challenge laws only when they actually collide with our enumerated rights and nothing – not the threat of terror or the threat of theocracy – should abridge those rights.
I know the Constitution is not a suicide pact*, but neither is it a list of suggestions or guidelines, to be ignored for some illusion of liberty or security. Yet it seems that before you can get people to care that the house has a mouse, you have to blow it up to the size of an elephant!
The moral of the story is restraint, not overkill. We all need to pause for a little reflection.
*Wikipedia says the precise phrase "suicide pact" was first used by Justice Robert H. Jackson in his dissenting opinion in Terminiello v. Chicago, a 1949 free speech case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, although the concept predates Jackson.
UPDATE (4/28/12): I seem to have been vindicated in my moderate approach to this civil liberties "crisis" by none other than Snopes, the Urban Legends debunking website!
Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: A Little Reflection