Congress passed a bill on Tuesday that would make it a criminal offense to trespass on "restricted buildings and grounds," which could have serious ramifications on future political protests near the White House.
H.R. 347, also known as the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, would make it a criminal offense to trespass in a restricted area, try to disrupt government functions in or around the area, or commit a violent act inside a restricted area.
According to the act, these penalties can be assessed inside any "posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted areas" inside three types of locations: the White House or Vice Presidential residence, the grounds of a special event of national significance, and any area containing someone protected by the Secret Service.
The Secret Service is responsible for protecting not only the sitting president, but also all past presidents, visiting heads of state, and leading presidential candidates.
Supporters of this bill argue that extraordinary measures are necessary to protect the president and other major political figures.
According to Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the bill's sponsor, "This bill will improve the law enforcement tools available to the Secret Service in its attempts to protect the President, the Vice President, and others on a day-to-day basis by closing loopholes in the current federal law. The new law should punish and deal more effectively with anyone who illegally enters restricted areas to threaten the President, Vice President, or other Secret Service protectees."
Others, however, are concerned that the new regulations are too stringent and may restrict First Amendment rights to assembly.
First, the new bill does not require that someone be "willfully" entering a restricted area in order to be prosecuted. This could mean that even someone who has unintentionally crossed into a restricted area may be subject to prosecution.
"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 it's illegal," explained Rep. Justin Amash via his Facebook page on Tuesday.
Amash added, "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."
The bill passed through the House with a final vote of 388-3. Rep. Amash was one of the three dissenting voters. It will now go to the president, where it will either be vetoed or signed into law.