Ready to Occupy? What You Need to Know about H.R. 347, the "Criminalizing Protest" Law

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz . . . and the Occupy movement is about to ramp up again. Activists recently announced a general strike for May 1, and protests are expected at the NATO summit on May 20 in Chicago. Later, of course, we can expect demonstrations in connection with the Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in early September.

Last month, I wrote about a then-little known bill designated H.R. 347 and titled the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011." The law, signed by the president in mid-March, expands an existing statute that criminalizes certain activity in and around areas that are restricted by the Secret Service.

Given the approaching protests, it may be worth providing a more detail on how exactly the law works, and what protesters can expect. Preliminarily, it's important to define one particular term in the law: "restricted buildings or grounds." These are specific geographic zones that have been designated by the Secret Service, and can be located under H.R. 347 in three places:

• The White House or the vice president's residence.
• A building or area where any individual under Secret Service protection is visiting.
• A building or area at which a National Special Security Event (or "NSSE") is taking place (more on that in a second).

Under the existing statute, four types of activities were illegal with respect to these zones, and remain so under the new law:

• You cannot "knowingly" enter or remain in a restricted zone without lawful authority.
• You cannot "knowingly" engage in "disorderly or disruptive" conduct in or near a restricted zone. A prosecutor would have to show, however, that you intended to disrupt government business and that your conduct actually did cause a disruption. Troublingly, the term "disorderly or disruptive conduct" is undefined.
• You cannot "knowingly" block the entrance or exit of one of these restricted zones. Again, however, the prosecutor would have to show that you did so with the intent to disrupt government business.
• Finally, you cannot "knowingly" engage in an act of physical violence against person or property in one of these restricted zones.

You'll notice that "knowingly" is in quotation marks above. This is one of the two major changes to existing law (the other is the extension of the statute to the White House and VP's residence). Previously, the law required someone to act "willfully and knowingly." This is the state of mind the government has to prove you had to establish your guilt (the "intent standard"). "Willfully and knowingly" means that you need to know you're committing a crime. "Knowingly" just means you need to be aware you're in a restricted zone, but not necessarily that it's unlawful.

(Incidentally, the punishment can be relatively severe. If you commit the offense with a weapon or if you cause injury (a felony), it can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Otherwise, the maximum is one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.)

There are a couple of other details worth noting to understand the full scope of the law. First, the Secret Service does not just protect the president and vice president. Rather, the agency has the responsibility for protecting the president, vice president and their immediate families; former presidents, vice presidents and certain family members; certain foreign dignitaries; major presidential and vice presidential candidates (within 120 days of an election); and other individuals as designated by a presidential executive order. If any of these individuals are temporarily visiting a location, this law kicks in.

Also, lots of attention has been paid to the National Special Security Events, which include things like presidential inaugurations, nominating conventions and even large spectacles like the Super Bowl. The Department of Homeland Security has massive discretion (which in and of itself is a problem) to designate one of these events as an NSSE based on things like the expected number of attendees and the presence of dignitaries.

So, what does this mean for lawful protesters? The honest answer is we simply don't know yet. These zones will hopefully occupy (no pun intended) a very small footprint at the three types of locations covered by the law. Also, these areas must be clearly identified to prevent protesters from inadvertently violating the law (or else they can't form the required intent). That said, the provision covering disruptions in or near the secure zones is of concern and could be misused to stifle lawful protest; same with the entrance/exit provision. These were already in the law, but the "knowingly" change could make them easier to abuse.

So far, we haven't seen any evidence that H.R. 347 specifically is being deployed aggressively by the Secret Service to tamp down on protests by Occupy or anyone else. That said, with the coming of spring 2012 and the November election, protest activity is undoubtedly going to grow rapidly. We'll be vigilant at the ACLU for any abuse, misuse or overuse, and we urge anyone who knows of any arrests or prosecutions under the new law to let us know.

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Funny, I don't recall the ACLU posting such protestor friendly items win the Tea Party was holding its rallies.

Makes you wanna say 'Hmmmmm." Is the ACLU biased?


Biased? The ACLU??? Nahhhh....


What do you need to know? Really? You need to know that there are men and women dying, losing their limbs, life and minds every day so that you thankless good for nothings can have the right to deficate, destroy, demolish, spread disease, rape, and murder in public and no one will touch you. You are the complete opposite of the Tea Party, polar opposite, and you don't get as much as a slap on the wrist. Freaking amazing isn't it? You thankless good for nothings who don't deserve to live in this country and give nothing back to it. You ask and ask and demand from this country and yet don't give it anything useful back. You are a disgrace to America, your family and yourself.


No worry, not for you, he only mean this law for conservative christians. So you can continue to deficate and urinate in public, stink up wherever you pitch a tent made out of trash bags, don't let the bed bugs or lice bother you, willfully have sex in front of God and everybody, who cares, you are the chosen leftists who give nothing to this country. You take and take and want and want. You destroy other people and their property, you do disgusting evil things to each other. All the while men and women all over the world give up life, mind and limb so you have the rights to do so. And you don't so much as thank them. The question is, why do you stay here? Do you want to live in a country that looks like crap? Smells even worse? You claim to hate it, you want everything for free and yet it never occurs to you that nothing is free, especially not freedom. It comes at a price you would never pay. So how does Venezeula look to you? Why don't you go there. Because if you keep this up we're going to have sharia law and then, whooa, you had better look out baby, because you will be the first to go and it won't be Venezeula, it will be a very deep and hot place.


If this was signed by a Republican president the ACLU would be raising hell. Of course, their mission is not to protect civil liberties of Americans, it is to protect civil liberties of left wingers and silence opposition to them. I guarantee you that they will flip-flop 180 degrees about this when Obama is defeated.


omg, the comments here are absolutely idiotic.

I applaud the ACLU website for standing up for people's rights to say dumb things online, though =)

seriously, though, if ACLU website trolls are an accurate depiction of any significant section of the public, we're in serious trouble.

The serious answer to any issue of rights is that no state can take your rights away from you. Our faux democratic government does not possess the moral authority to infringe upon natural rights, and if our public servants choose to attempt such actions they should be removed. If your rights are being infringed and you choose to submit to such, you are enabling the abuse to continue on into future generations.

The USA, if it ever could have had a future as a model of egalitarian democracy, has long strayed from that path. This is our "Pax Americana" phase as compared to the history & fall of Rome, and assuming we manage to not destroy our environment or kill ourselves the country will likely collapse within a couple hundred years.

Never accept or allow unjust authority, because it is this deference to existing structures that enabled tyrants and inequality throughout history. If everyone could wake up, we could take back the world in the blink of an eye.

The men who enshrined your rights, which were not granted by country but rather by God(or rather by your existence itself), would not submit to tyranny and neither should you. To even suggest that denial of free speech is an admirable American trait, or that criticism of military policy is equivalent to criticism of the positive ideals of America, as some of the comments here have done, is laughable.

As Samuel Adams said -
"Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."


Well, I was going to post a long bit but the commenting system flagged me as spam, so...

The comments here are absurd, though I support the ACLU in allowing any comment no matter how far from reality it may be =)

If you don't understand freedom, don't go around criticizing others as undeserving of it.

Pax Americana is destined for a painful collapse, as is any empire.

Limitations on freedom written into law cannot overrule Constitutional rights, which criminalizing visible protest clearly does.

The people who presently benefit from the corruption of our faux democracy may have made their own lives a bit easier or more enjoyable, but their descendants will suffer the consequences of these decisions along with the rest of us. Think long and hard about what you want for your children and grandchildren when you advocate the destruction of a nation, revocation of rights, or murder for profit.


America appears to be doomed! Help us ACLU, you're our only hope!


The problem is that the federal government continues to take a dandruff-off-my-shoulder approach to mens rea. There was an article in the WSJ about this awhile back. "Also, these areas must be clearly identified to prevent protesters from inadvertently violating the law (or else they can't form the required intent)." In other words, the federal gov. no longer requires INTENT when convicting for federal "crimes." These boundary lines wouldn't be much different than federally-declared wilderness areas, and there was that guy that got LOST in a BLIZZARD, yet was found guilty of trespassing on federal land.

Richard Cecil B...

Why are all these posts anonymous? You would have to be a spineless coward to post something like "You thankless good for nothings who don't deserve to live in this country and give nothing back to it. You ask and ask and demand from this country and yet don't give it anything useful back. You are a disgrace to America, your family and yourself." and not put your name on it. ACLU thank you for giving them their freedom but NOTHING in the constitution says you get anonymity.


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