by Nation intern Loren Fogel

Last week, Congress sent the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 to President Obama’s desk. If enacted, the law would broaden federal power to prosecute and levy penalties upon anyone who disrupts government or is deemed trespassing “without lawful authority” upon grounds that are protected by the US Secret Service. These grounds would not only include the White House, the vice president’s residence (US Naval Observatory) and other federal buildings but also anywhere the president or people protected by Secret Service are visiting.

The bill passed in the House of Representatives with only three dissenters—but they raise important points about potential misuse of this law and worry that it might make protesting in the presence of politicians much more difficult. Representative Justin Amash, a freshman Tea Party member from Michigan, noted on his Facebook account that current law already forbids people from entering these restricted areas:

[This] 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 it’s illegal. Some government officials may need extraordinary protection to ensure their safety. But criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activity—even if that activity is annoying to those government officials—violates our rights. I voted “no.”

While proponents of this bill haven’t explicitly referenced the Occupy movement, the timing is certainly interesting. Avoiding protests is becoming an increasing governmental concern, as evidenced by this week’s relocation of the G8 summit to Camp David. And if enacted, it is possible the enhanced powers of the Secret Service could be applied as a means of deterring or arresting protesters along the campaign trail or at the national party conventions.

In these times of risk, fear and demands for change, the tension between the authority and needs of those who provide security and the right of individuals to protest and freely express their grievances are pushing particularly hard against one another. The Secret Service has its needs, and the risks and responsibilities inherent in its duties require realistic empathy and consideration. At the same time, protesters have rights, and efforts to keep them out of spaces in which federal officials gather is a sign of diminishing democracy.