Sunday, May 6, 2012

Criminalizing Dissent

In First Amendment (1791-2012) R.I.P. we discussed H.R. 347, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, that further criminalized the First Amendment. Slate concisely summarized the new law like this.
It is a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison to protest anywhere the Secret Service might be guarding someone. For another, it’s almost impossible to predict what constitutes “disorderly or disruptive conduct” or what sorts of conduct authorities deem to “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”

Instead of turning on a designated place, the protest ban turns on what persons and spaces are deemed to warrant Secret Service protection. It’s a perfect circle: The people who believe they are important enough to warrant protest can now shield themselves from protestors. No wonder the Occupy supporters are worried. In the spirit of “free speech zones,” this law creates another space in which protesters are free to be nowhere near the people they are protesting.
Among others, three major upcoming events will test the impact of this new law on First Amendment activities. First comes Chicago's NATO Summit, May 20-21. The Presidential nominating conventions follow this fall, first the Republicans in Tampa, August 27-30, then the Democrats in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 3-6.

All three cities are greatly increasing security and making plans to handle protestors. The Secret Service has finalized plans for Chicago. The Chicago folks are in for three days of intermittent road closures on the main artery between the airport and downtown, a full-day shutdown of three of the city's top tourist attractions, with a "no people allowed" policy for the whole Museum campus. Airspace and harbors both face significant restrictions, as does the downtown traffic grid.

Protest groups are being "kept" about three blocks from the summit venue, according to ABC News. (snarky punctuation added by your Tireless Agorist.)

Preliminary planning is already underway in Tampa and Charlotte; similar restrictions are expected to apply. As mentioned in the Slate piece, and illustrated by the three-block separation between protestors and the NATO summit, "The people who believe they are important enough to warrant protest can now shield themselves from protestors" and they have every intention of doing so. The real question is whether the protestors will cooperate or risk arrest and imprisonment to make their voices heard. Tampa has promised their own form of crackdown.
Tampa Republican National Convention goers have received multiple threats from the city. The first threat: A Protest Zone will be established. Second threat: 60 days in the Hillsborough County Jail.

According to a respected source, the Mayor said, " '[a]nd those that chose to break the law, we're going to deal with you,' he said. Violations of the temporary ordinance could be punished by up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500."
As the Slate article points out, those protestors prosecuted under H.R. 347 risk even more.

Nor is simple imprisonment the worst that protestors might face. Thanks to the recent ruling of the Supreme Court, they may also be stripped of their dignity. Now that the strip-searching of prisoners for any arrestable offense is broadly permissible and no restrictions were placed on the severity of offenses that may trigger a strip-search, they may have the opportunity to hear “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.” Given the attitude toward protestors that seems to be prevalent among our noble ruling class, the smart money is on arrested protestors hearing those six words on a regular basis.

The protestors also risk serious injury or death for even peaceful protest. As we found in Killer Cattle Prods, Tasers are rapidly becoming more widely recognized as lethal weapons, except by the very people authorized to use them. Tasers will be widely distributed among the "peacekeepers" at all three venues. Experience shows that even passive resistance to authority risks a heart-stopping jolt. In roughly 35 percent of the cases examined, the subjects were engaged in defensive or passive resistance.

And in discussing possible risks, we would be remiss if we were to fail to mention Officer Pike and his can of industrial-strength pepper spray, hosing down sitting, non-resisting protestors at UC Davis.

The Tampa situation warrants special attention because some protestors may be legally armed.
On Tuesday, Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, turned down an appeal from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to allow the city to ban guns during the convention. Florida's gun laws, which are more lenient than in most states, allow citizens to carry concealed weapons.

"Like you, I share the concern that 'violent anti-government protests or other civil unrest' can pose 'dangers' and the 'threat of substantial injury or harm to Florida residents visitors to the state,'" Scott wrote. "But it is unclear how disarming citizens would better protect them from the dangers and threats posed by those who would flout the law. It is at just such times that the constitutional right to self defense is most precious and must be protected from government overreach."

Guns will still not be allowed inside the convention hall or in the area directly around it, but would be allowed in the protest (or "event") zone and elsewhere in the city.

The decision has prompted mockery from critics, who have pointed out that the city has banned water guns in the protest zone - but not the real thing. (Also reportedly banned: Masks, pipe, and string, rope or chains longer than six feet.)

"Some people don't seem to think the First Amendment is as valuable as the Second Amendment," a protester complained to the council Thursday morning, according to Tampa Bay Online.
H.R. 347, however, may dampen the protestors' enthusiasm for exercising their Second Amendment right. Although the Slate article quoted at the top of this column rightly points out that the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act makes it a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison to protest anywhere the Secret Service might be guarding someone, they fail to mention that the 10-year penalty applies only to someone who is armed with a deadly weapon or firearm. Unarmed protestors risk only a year. A multiplier of ten for exercising a fundamental right, while draconian, may serve its intended purpose of assuring that protestors are powerless to resist even the unlawful use of force.

The right of protest now faces the strictest restrictions in modern times. The militarization of police forces and widespread deployment of pepper spray and "non-lethal" Tasers among the "peacekeepers" invites disportionate response to peaceful protest activities. At the same time, public dissatisfaction with the state of the nation is high. These three events are powderkegs, lacking only one bad actor among the protestors or the police forces to light the fuse.

In Chicago, you'll have a collection of far-left and far-right protestors, leaning left to some degree, and a disarmed group. In Tampa, on the other hand, you'll have the same general collection of protestors, although leaning more to the right, plus the libertarian movement within the party, protesting their treatment at the hands of the party establishment. At least one large group of ex-military members is planning organized protests as well. And although the Tampa protestors have the opportunity to be legally armed, they also risk ten years for protest instead of one if they legally exercise that right.

It will be interesting to compare the relative level of violent incidents at the various events, won't it?

...and that's all I have to say about that.

1 comment:

  1. Although I wish ill to none, perhaps it would be a good oppurtunity for someone arrested to get this law into the federal court system. It could be argued that restricting the right of the people to redress grievances to the government in such a blanket fashion is unconstitutional.
    I'd wager for a 7-2 or better decision by the SOTUS.