Demonstrators assembled at the Ohio State House in Columbus, April 10, demanding action in response to a series of anti-protest bills that are being debated in the Ohio House and Senate. The event, headlined “Protest While You Can,” was organized by Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, which called the bills “an unconstitutional affront to our fundamental First Amendment rights to assemble, speak and petition the government.”
This unconstitutional affront is only one of many recent attacks on protest rights. Following the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017, oil companies were among many capitalist interests lobbying for legislation to criminalize protests targeting “critical infrastructure.” One such bill in Ohio was Senate Bill 33.
“We have been protesting SB 33 for two years,” said Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, executive director of UUJO. “These other bills are newer.”
The bills Van Becelaere refers to — Senate Bills 16 and 41 and House Bills 109 and 22 — were introduced in the wake of protests against the killing of George Floyd. The lawmakers sponsoring the legislation have used rhetoric emphasizing the importance of protecting private property and the safety of first responders. However, each bill specifically targets protest tactics seen throughout Ohio during the protests of the summer of 2020, using language so broad that almost any peaceful protest could be interpreted to be in violation. Protesters arrested and charged under these bills could face felony charges and exorbitant monetary fines.
SB 16 would criminalize four or more people blocking a street, sidewalk or other public passage, making such action a fifth-degree felony. HB 109 would similarly criminalize the same actions on private property. SB 41 would make “defacing, painting or otherwise marking on government property” a fifth-degree felony, employing language so broad that even using temporary sidewalk chalk could be interpreted as a criminal action. HB 22 would make it illegal to distract law enforcement or other first responders during an arrest, even going so far as to specifically criminalize yelling at an arresting officer or standing too close while the arrest is taking place.
Almost all of the bills contain language that would make organizers, and the organizations they associate with, liable for civil and criminal damages. SB 41 would require that individuals convicted of “rioting” pay restitution for property damage, and that organizers and their organizations may be required to reimburse the police for the cost of policing an event. SB 16 allows organizers and organizations to be charged with second-degree felonies if an event they organize is deemed to be a “riot.” Some of these offenses are punishable by up to eight years in prison and fines of up to $15,000.
The fundamental right to free speech and assembly, at least in the eyes of Ohio legislators, is secondary to the interests of private property and law enforcement. These unconstitutional bills are a blatant effort by the ruling class to discourage popular dissent in the form of direct action, and to reinforce the powers of police to disrupt community organizing.