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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama Criminalize Free Speech?

Q: Did President Obama secretly sign a law that makes it a crime to protest against him or ask him a question he doesn’t like?

A: No. He openly announced the signing of a bill overwhelmingly passed by Congress that slightly revises a 1971 law against trespassing into areas under Secret Service protection.


Is this true?

Subject: Obama quietly tramples the first amendment

I truly thought this was a joke until I watched the short video of Judge Napolitano. Here is another law that separates citizens from the President.

New law makes it illegal to protest in Obama’s presence (or whomever he chooses)

This means that, wherever Obama is at, you do not have a right to ask him anything you want to. His secret service can have you arrested, fined, and imprisoned for more than a YEAR if you ask him something he doesn’t like. Sound like he’s more like Hitler than Lincoln to you?


Click on the link below:



We have received numerous inquiries about HR 347, the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” but many of the claims made in this email and elsewhere are simply untrue.

The law merely updates a measure that has been on the books since it was signed by then-President Richard Nixon in 1971, making it a federal crime to trespass on grounds secured by the Secret Service. No new penalties were added, and the bill was not signed “secretly” as some claim. The White House announced the signing publicly just as it does for other such routine measures.

Manufactured Controversy

This was about as routine and noncontroversial as a federal law can get, at least until false claims started to circulate, drumming up a manufactured controversy. The law was sponsored by a Republican, Rep. Thomas Rooney of Florida. In fact, the bill has been around for years. Rooney first introduced it in 2009 and spoke about it on the House floor in 2010. The current Congress passed it overwhelmingly — by “unanimous consent” in the Senate, and with only three House members voting against it.

It merely amended Title 18, Chapter 84, Section 1752 of the U.S. Code — just as then-President George W. Bush did in 2006 when he signed the Patriot Act. (Click on the link to the U.S. Code and you can see how it was amended in 1982, 1984, 1994 and 2006.)

According to the official report of the full House Judiciary Committee (which approved it on a voice vote, without recorded opposition), the bill adds two things to previously existing law:

  • It specifies that it is unlawful to enter secured areas of the White House and its grounds, or the vice president’s official residence and grounds. Previously, according to the report, the law prohibited unlawful entry to any building or ground, secured by the Secret Service, where the president or vice president is “temporarily” visiting. That forced the Secret Service to rely on a District of Columbia law that “addresses only minor misdemeanor infractions” even if somebody were to breach the White House residence itself.
  • The new law revises the standard that prosecutors must meet to gain a conviction, from proving that a violation was committed “willfully and knowingly” to merely proving that it was committed “knowingly.”

The bill reached the House floor on Feb. 28, 2011, but not a single member spoke out against it during the seven minutes of debate. The House then passed it by a vote of 399 to 3. Only Reps. Ron Paul of Texas, Justin Amash of Michigan and Paul Broun of Georgia, all Republicans, voted against it. The Senate didn’t take it up until nearly a year later, when it reached the floor on Feb. 6, 2012. With no debate whatsoever, the Senate passed a slightly amended version by “unanimous consent,” meaning that not a single senator voiced any opposition.

The Senate version reached the House floor a few days later, Feb. 27. Once again nobody spoke against the measure during another very brief debate, which lasted eight minutes. The House vote this time was 388 to 3, but those voting against included a liberal Democrat — Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Ellison had voted for the measure the first time. His switch brought to four the total number of House members who had voted against the measure during either House vote. (Paul was absent this time.)

Obama signed the measure into law March 8. But he didn’t do it in secret, as critics would later claim. There was no public ceremony, of the sort reserved for major pieces of legislation. But like most routine and noncontroversial measures, this one was signed in private and then announced publicly through an official White House statement.

Bogus Claims

So how did such an innocuous measure come to be described as an assault on the First Amendment and a criminalizing of any protest against Barack Obama? The emails we have seen usually include a link to a video of a Fox News’ report criticizing the law as an unprecedented attack on free speech, and claiming that the law makes it a crime to protest and imposes stiff new penalties — including making it a felony for merely asking Obama a question he doesn’t like or protesting peacefully in his presence.

All those claims are bogus.

As we’ve seen, the law has been around since Richard Nixon’s time, and the changes Congress approved don’t impose new penalties or even address the issues of speech or protest.

The Fox News report, for example, claimed that the new law makes it a felony to protest against the president, and the emails circulating about it say you can be put in prison “for more than a YEAR if you ask him something he [Obama] doesn’t like.” But even before the law was amended this year, it provided for penalties of up to 10 years — if the person in a restricted area carries a deadly weapon or causes “significant bodily injury.” Nothing new.

Some civil libertarians do see a danger that the law can be abused — but that was true before and is also nothing new. Gabe Rottman, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote a blog post in response to some of the wild claims that have been made about the new law.

We should note here that the ACLU vigorously defends the rights of protesters, even to the point of famously supporting the right of a Nazi group to parade in Skokie, Ill., in 1978.

Rottman wrote that the bill “slightly rewrites” the existing trespass law and that “contrary to some reports” the bill “doesn’t create any new crimes.” The only change that the ACLU’s Rottman found “noteworthy” is that the new law makes it somewhat less difficult for a prosecutor to convict somebody of trespassing where the Secret Service has established security, and he said the ACLU would be alert for “any abuse or misuse.”

New Legal Standard

Under the 2006 law, it would have been a crime if someone “willfully and knowingly” entered an area restricted by the Secret Service. Now that has been changed to just “knowingly.” Rottman says that “may make it easier for the Secret Service to overuse or misuse the statute to arrest lawful protesters.”

Rottman, March 8: Without getting too much into the weeds, most crimes require the government to prove a certain state of mind. Under the original language of the law, you had to act “willfully and knowingly” when committing the crime. In short, you had to know your conduct was illegal. Under H.R. 347, you will simply need to act “knowingly,” which here would mean that you know you’re in a restricted area, but not necessarily that you’re committing a crime.

Any time the government lowers the intent requirement, it makes it easier for a prosecutor to prove her case, and it gives law enforcement more discretion when enforcing the law. To be sure, this is of concern to the ACLU. We will monitor the implementation of H.R. 347 for any abuse or misuse.

In an interview, Rottman also expressed concern about “undefined phrases” in the law — such as “disorderly or disruptive conduct.” He said, “What exactly is ‘disruptive’?  Undefined phrases can be problematic when applying the law.”

But the 2006 version of the law contained the same undefined phrases:

  • The 2006 version says it is unlawful for a person or group to “willfully, knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, to engage in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any building or grounds.”
  • The 2012 version says it is unlawful if someone “knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”

One last thing: Critics of the president are using the law to scare people into thinking that the law will be used against his critics. Maybe it will be. But the law doesn’t cover just the president and vice president and it hasn’t since it was amended in 1982. It covers anyone under Secret Service protection, including past presidents of both parties and the Republican presidential and vice presidential nominees.

So, to recap: The law isn’t new; it merely amends existing law. The law doesn’t impose new penalties, although the ACLU is concerned that it may make it easier for the government to prove its case against someone who knowingly enters a restricted area or causes a disturbance in areas under Secret Service protection. The law doesn’t criminalize free speech any more than it did when Bush revised the same law in 2006.

— Eugene Kiely and Brooks Jackson


U.S. House. “H.R. 347, Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011.” 3 Jan 2012.

U.S. House. H.R. 347, roll call vote #73. 27 Feb 2012.

U.S. House Office of the Law Revision Counsel “18 USC Sec. 1752, Restricted buildings or grounds.” 3 Jan 2012.

U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. “Report to accompany H.R. 347.” 11 Feb 2011.

U.S. House. H.R. 347, roll call vote #149. 28 Feb 2011.

U.S. Congressional Record. 6 Feb 2012. S357-358.

U.S. Congressional Record. 27 Feb 2012. H953-954.

White House. “Statement by the Press Secretary on H.R. 347.” 8 Mar 2012.

Rottman, Gabe. “How Big a Deal is H.R. 347, That “Criminalizing Protest” Bill?” American Civil Liberties Union.  8 Mar 2012.

American Civil Liberties Union. “Right to Protest.” Undated, accessed 7 May 2012.

American Civil Liberties Union. “ACLU History.” Undated, accessed 7 May 2012.

U.S. House. “H.R. 3199, USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005.” 3 Jan 2006.

White House. “President Signs USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005.” 9 Mar 2006.

U.S. Code, 2007 Edition. “18 U.S.C., Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 84, Sec. 1752, Restricted buildings or grounds.” 2007.