The Constitution of the United States contains some of the strongest guarantees of free speech in the world. Nonetheless, there are situations in which Americans can face criminal charges for exercising their first amendment rights. Since 2012, it’s been a crime to protest or disrupt an official government event or rally for a candidate protected by the Secret Service. In this year’s election cycle, this once obscure law has been used to prosecute several protesters at Donald Trump rallies.
When Does Free Speech Go to Far?
This year, around two dozen black students from Valdosta State University were removed from a Donald Trump rally held on the campus. The students, who had tickets to the event, silently protested the event by making the “black power” sign. The university’s police moved the protesters to an alternate protest area, away from the rally.
In America, so-called “fighting words” are not protected by the First Amendment. The Georgia criminal code defines fighting words as “abusive words which by their very utterance tend to incite to an immediate breach of the peace.” Thus, authorities can legally suppress speech that incites violence. Yet the student protesters at Valdosta State University were certainly not inciting violence, so where did the authority to censor them originate?
The Federal Government Can Censor Free Speech at Political Events
It turns out that the Valdosta State University police were acting at the bequest of the Trump campaign and the secret service, who drew their authority from the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, which President Obama discreetly signed into law in 2012.
Under 18 U.S.C. section 1752, protestors can face up to a year in prison if they knowingly “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions” in places guarded by the Secret Service. The law basically enables the government to criminalize protests during presidential campaigns, since the Secret Service handles security at campaign events.
The penalty for protesting a presidential campaign event is a fine and a possible 1-year jail sentence. If the protestor gets caught with a dangerous weapon or causes an injury, the possible prison time increases to a maximum of 10 years.
Democracy at Risk in America
Prosecutors in Chicago have already brought trespassing charges against Donald Trump protestors, setting a worrying precedent for political activism in America. Hillary Clinton enjoys lifelong secret service protection—does this mean that free speech is permanently limited in her presence? For a country whose history was defined by civil disobedience and activism, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act is a surprising and unfortunate piece of legislation.
Political activism is a central aspect of a functioning democracy, yet the United States government seems determined to stifle voices of dissent during this election cycle. If you decide to protest a rally by Donald Trump or any other candidate, you should understand that you run the risk of facing criminal charges. If you get arrested for exercising your first amendment rights, call the Columbus criminal attorneys of Luftman, Heck & Associates today at (614) 500-3836 for a free and confidential consultation.