Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jeanine Molloff Headshot

HR 347 'Trespass Bill' Criminalizes Protest

Posted: Updated:

As I write this op-ed, I primp for the mirror -- looking for the most flattering pose -- for my mug shot. Now, don't get the wrong impression; I haven't been arrested and charged with a federal felony -- yet. Nor is the preparation done in anticipation of a guest stint on "America's Next Top Model" -- but as a common sense reaction to Obama's predictable signing of the latest assault on the Bill of Rights -- namely -- H.R. 347 (and it's companion senate bill S. 1794); aka the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011." Sounding more like an appropriations bill authorizing monies for federal grounds landscaping -- this bill, better known to those in the DC beltway as the 'Trespass Bill' -- potentially makes peaceable protest anywhere in the U.S. a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The legislators responsible for bringing this legislative excrement to life are Representative Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) in the House of Representatives and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT.) leading the Senate version.

H. R. 347 makes protest of any type potentially a federal offense with anywhere from a year to 10 years in federal prison, providing it occurs in the presence of elites brandishing Secret Service protection, or during an officially defined 'National Special Security Event' (NSSE). NSSEs , ( an invention of Bill Clinton) are events which have been deemed worthy of Secret Service protection, which previously received no such treatment. Justified through part of 'Presidential Decision Directive 62 in 1998; Bill Clinton created an additional class of special events explicitly under the authority of the U.S. Secret Service.

Past NSSE events included the funerals of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and the national security concern that was Superbowl XXXVI. Other NSSE protected events include the Academy Awards and the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. I suppose presidential candidates, no matter how insane they may be are deserving as much security protection as Brad and Angelina's sex life. The dangerous part of this 'executive order' lies not in the triviality of a SuperBowl receiving taxpayer funded Secret Service protection -- but in the convenience manufactured for any President desperate to hide deliberations of groups like the G-8, the G-20 and the World Trade Organization. The classification of such events as NSSE -- insures the rich and powerful against any pesky accountability or transparency to the unwashed minions -- namely the US public. HR 347 & S. 1794 insulates such events as the G-8, WTO and presidential conventions against tough questions and politically justified protests.

The House vote tally which took place 02/28/12, was 338 for and 3 against. The three dissenters were Rep.Paul Broun R-Georgia, Rep. Justin Amash R-Michigan and Rep. Keith Ellison D-Minnesota. Rep. Ron Paul was reported earlier as having voted against the bill, but that was based on the original vote conducted 02/28/11. Rep. Ron Paul ABSTAINED on the final vote.

Rep. Amash 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 its 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.


Amash is correct in noting that the omission of the word "willfully" represents an unfair burden to the citizen. In legalese, this omission creates a situation where anyone can be charged with a federal felony for 'trespassing' on grounds shared by a person or group receiving Secret Service protection (including NSSE's); EVEN IF THE 'TRESPASSER' HAD NO KNOWLEDGE OF SUCH PROTECTED PERSONS BEING PRESENT. In theory, anyplace where there is a protest could also be the setting for mass felony charges against constitutionally protected behavior such as the right to protest.

So, Amash as one of the three dissenters has no problem with criminalizing protest on the 'royal' grounds of the Congress or the White House, or even a hotel hosting a fundraiser where legislative aristocracy are protected by the Secret Service -- his objection lies with the average tourist unwittingly stumbling onto 'hallowed' ground occupied by legally anointed royalty from our government.
This bill can be found in pdf form here.

Rooney's defense ...

Rooney's communication director, Michael Mahaffey dismissed any concerns about civil liberties violations caused by H.R. 347 as..."a whole lot of kerfuffle over nothing. This (HR 347) doesn't affect anyone's right to protest anywhere at any time. Ever."

Mahaffey further added that this bill is nothing more than a benign 'DC-centric update' of Section 1752 of title 18, United States Code, designed to safeguard persons under Secret Service protection. Blandly attributing HR 347 as an extension of that protection to the DC area (where such protections fall under the scope of local trespassing ordinances) -- Mahaffey explained that "... 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."

Mahaffey further claimed that this change was requested by the Secret Service itself.

To his credit Mahaffey did answer my inquiry with a carefully worded email, explaining further that this bill only offers consistent protection for those requiring Secret Service details such as the President, Vice-President. (Source: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr347enr/pdf/BILLS-112hr347enr.pdf) Neither Rooney or Mahaffey actually answered my question regarding legal precedent, legal case citations, and associated theories. We are merely supposed to take their word for it.

The problem with Rep. Rooney's response via Michael Mahaffey lies in the very nature of protest. Mahaffey claims that this bill does not trample the constitutionally protected right to protest -- yet the bill itself criminalizes 'disruptive conduct' in such vague terms that a 7th grader disrupting visiting dignitaries receiving Secret Service protection, over any issue -- (no matter how trivial), such as school uniforms -- would be potentially guilty of a federal felony. What Rooney, and so many government elites cynically ignore is the very nature of protest. Protest in its very nature, is intended to disrupt government business as usual, for without such disruption the protest would be as effective as a leaky condom.

Both Amash and Rooney refuse to recognize the constitutionally messy, disruptive right to protest, to petition a government for redress of grievances. Meanwhile, this Congress and this President have established themselves as self-appointed aristocrats and monarchs, with this bill representing a legislative Maginot Line separating Congress, the President and the corporations who appear to own them -- from the rest of us rabble. Amash's offering is tantamount to an obese glutton offering crumbs to the starving -- symbolically empty and useless.

No response has been received by the Senate sponsor of HR 347's companion bill Senate Bill 1794, Senator Blumenthal. In fact, this bill was passed in the Senate by 'unanimous consent,' which is significant in terms of senatorial accountability and transparency. To quote www.govtrack.us:

"... This bill passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. A record of each senator's position was not kept." How very convenient for each senator that their position was never recorded -- anywhere. No accountability and certainly no transparency. Here is the link to the House vote record.

You can contact any member of the U.S. Senate regarding their vote and the lack of transparency on such an important issue.

Though a majority of Senate business is dispensed with using 'unanimous consent' -- it is inherently troubling that our Senators view the dismissal of our basic right to 'peaceably assembly' as inconsequential.

In this age of ever increasing police militarization and shrinking civil liberties both here at home and worldwide; the U.S. government under President Obama has morphed into a third Bush term. No longer content to stonewall the public with empty slogans issuing from 'empty suits' -- the political class has degraded to writing obviously illegitimate 'laws' in a desperate attempt to crush any dissent.

As this bill made its way through the illustrious halls of Congress -- no open discussion was entertained for an entire year. Not a single member of Congress spoke out against this obscenity. Not a single member of Congress alerted the press. Not a single member of Congress contacted legal advocacy groups such as the ACLU, Bill of Rights Defense Committee or the National Lawyer's Guild. The silence deafening -- if not conspiratorial.

Just this past year the President who campaigned on 'hope' and 'change'--announced some galling changes -- with Congress (for the most part) rubber stamping each and every death blow to the Bill of Rights. President Obama has claimed the right to declare anyone a 'terrorist' or 'terrorist sympathizer' based on nothing more than presidential opinion, and order their assassination. No evidence is required -- at least that the public can see. We are told to blissfully 'trust' our public officials even when they are unworthy of such trust. Now our right to protest, to be disruptive -- has been criminalized as a federal felony.

Perhaps Congress and the President will find their inner patriot and reverse this rape of our rights. It could happen. By the way -- can anyone pass the Prozac?