By Halena Sepulveda at Kent State University
Version released by Mary Schuermann for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection collaboration.
A bill pending in the Ohio legislature could increase penalties for those arrested while protesting in the state.
Ohio House Bill 109 would create three new felony charges of “riot assault”, “riot vandalism” and “bias-motivated intimidation”. These charges are fifth degree felonies and can be upgraded to third degree felonies if the alleged assault results in the injury of a law enforcement officer.
The first two charges would increase penalties for offenses such as rioting and disorderly conduct. “Bias-motivated bullying”, a new charge, would make it a crime to cause harm to a person or their property because of their first responder status.
The legislation is one of several bills drafted in response to the protests that took place over the summer of 2020. It received significant partisan support from Republican Ohio state officials after having been introduced by major sponsors, Rep. Sarah Carruthers (R-Hamilton) and Rep. Cindy Abrams (R-Harrison) in February.
“As a former Cincinnati police officer, this bill hits home,” Rep. Abrams said via email. In 2001, she was a member of a 15-officer response team that responded to civil unrest.
“The violent actions of a few bad actors put everyone at risk – peaceful protesters, community members and law enforcement,” Abrams wrote. “HB 109 ensures that individuals seeking to harm others at these mass gatherings are held accountable.”
Opponents of the bill argue that it threatens the First Amendment rights of Ohioans. Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, says organizations that plan or promote demonstrations and protests could be at risk.
If violence erupts at any level during a protest, the organization that promoted or planned the event could be in violation of HB 109 and Ohio’s corrupt activity laws, which involve engaging or attempting to engage in conduct defined as “racketeering activity”.
“In all the years I’ve done this work, I’ve never seen a bill as bad as this when it comes to free speech rights,” Daniels said.
Ohio is currently in the second year of its two-year legislative session, which will end in December 2022. House Bill 109 has passed the Ohio House of Representatives and is awaiting a decision from the Senate. . If the Senate approves the bill, it will go to Governor Mike DeWine for a signature or a veto.
The legislature will adjourn for recess in early June and reconvene in November.
“I am working with my colleagues in the Ohio Senate and across the aisle to get this bill passed and I am hopeful that HB 109 will be signed into law by the end of the year. “Abrams said via email.
Ohio defines a riot as a group of four or more people who come together and violate codes of disorderly conduct, with intent to commit a crime or prevent a public official from doing their job.
Organizations like the ACLU of Ohio are concerned about what HB 109’s passing will mean for future protests and the right of Ohioans to come together for causes they care about.
“I think the bottom line for a lot of people is they’ll just stop talking, stop participating, stop planning, stop protesting,” Daniels said.
This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.
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