Privacy SOS

H.R. 347: free speech killer?

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If Congress has its way, the activists above could go to jail for a year (or even ten years) simply for disrupting this congressional hearing.

Amidst the wave of social justice organizing that has traversed the world over the past year, various elected officials nationwide have attempted to criminalize or hinder particular expressions of dissent.

In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has been pushing a city ordinance that would drastically increase fines on arrested demonstrators and make it more difficult to obtain permits for large demonstrations. Oregon legislators batted around legislation that would have criminalized online speech in support of activities that resulted in civil disobedience. (That attempt thankfully failed.)

And Congress has gotten in on the anti-speech action, as well. A bill apparently aimed at activism in and around Washington DC, and protest targeted at high level government officials such as the President, has now passed the House and Senate.

H.R. 347 would criminalize entering a "restricted building or grounds without lawful authority" and intentional disruption of "Government business or official functions" at any event that has protection from the Secret Service, whether it is on government property or not. These "crimes" would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison with a fine if anyone got hurt, or one year and a fine otherwise. 

Any activist who has been around the block will tell you that police routinely charge people arrested for civil disobedience with crimes like assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, even if no such assault or resisting took place. If this statute becomes law, it'd mean that any officer who says that he or she was hurt during an arrest could potentially testify to put someone away for 10 years, simply for doing civil disobedience at a congressional hearing or outside a hotel where the President is speaking.

As law professor Jonathan Turley wrote, "This would allow for the arrest of protesters  just about anywhere. Outside political rallies, near the hotels of visiting foreign dignitaries, outside sporting or other public events like the Super Bowl . . .  you get the idea."

See if your representative supported the bill (he or she likely did, given that only 3 House members voted 'no').

UPDATE/CORRECTION: President Obama signed the bill into law today (March 8 2012). Since writing this blog, we've read an alternate analysis that flushes out the history of this law, which already existed on the books. The changes that became law today with President Obama's signature undoubtedly make the bad law worse, but much of the troubling language preexisted today's alteration. By no means does that mean that we shouldn't be concerned about the statute, or about it getting more restrictive of speech. 

Indeed, it appears as if the few changes made to the law are a response to growing social movements in the United States, including Occupy DC protests at the White House and Occupy demonstrators nationwide turning out to challenge the powerful when they appear in public.

For more information, read the Partnership for Civil Justice and the national ACLU on this bill.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.