Bill to crack down on ‘critical infrastructure’ protesters advanced by House committee

By: - January 29, 2020 12:46 pm

Several protesters of Senate Bill 33 are seen outside the Public Utilities Committee hearing room. Capital Journal photo by Tyler Buchanan.

Through a gauntlet of protesters the members of the Ohio House Public Utilities Committee walked, hearing pleas, rebukes and near the line’s end one more question.

“Why? Why vote for this?”

They exited the hearing room with a majority having voted to send Senate Bill 33 to a full House vote. Dozens of protesters were present Wednesday morning to object to the bill, which would mandate stricter penalties for criminal conduct at a “critical infrastructure facility” such as a gas pipeline or oil refinery. Individuals are prohibited from “knowingly entering or remaining on a ‘critical infrastructure facility’ without having privilege to do so. 

The bill elevates many existing charges from misdemeanors to being third-degree felonies. In one example, the bill would newly prohibit “aggravated trespass” for those seeking to destroy or tamper a “critical infrastructure facility” and subject an offender to a felony charge. 

Over the past year, legislators have heard testimony from nearly 100 voices — nearly all of whom oppose the bill. They argue the law would stifle environmentalists’ freedom of speech by prohibiting peaceful demonstrations at, for example, an energy production site. 

The Ohio Senate passed the bill last May. At the seventh hearing held by the House’s Public Utilities Committee on Wednesday, Republican members approved the bill and sent it toward a full House vote.

State Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, is the main sponsor and said last year the bill was necessary because “some individuals and organizations are going beyond the scope of peaceful protest and are targeting such facilities.” He claimed such people attempt to disrupt and damage this infrastructure “in the name of ‘protest.”

State Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, is chairman of the Public Utilities Committee and said during Wednesday’s hearing that the opposition testimony led to a number of positive changes to the bill, not specifying what those changes were.

“It’s not a better bill,” one spectator shouted back.

“We the people have a right to protest,” another declared, as officials worked to clear them from the hearing room for being disruptive. 

The protest spilled into the hallway. There were several testy exchanges, as some kept opening the hearing room door so that legislators could hear their chants. A man in a suit who said he was “in charge of security” repeatedly closed the door from inside. He threatened to have them arrested and insisted the protesters leave. They did not, and though state patrolmen arrived after hearing the commotion, the protesters continued their demonstration until after the meeting was concluded. 

Protesters line the hallway outside of the House Public Utilities Committee hearing room. Capital Journal photo by Tyler Buchanan.

“Halt the harm, not the people of Ohio,” they chanted. 

Many of the groups present had previously testified against SB 33. These included the Ohio Community Rights Network, the Buckeye Environmental Network, Organize Ohio, Move to Amend Ohio, Sustainable Medina County, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, among others. 

Tim Kettler, representing the Coshocton Environmental and Community Awareness group, said he was kept from testifying to the House committee so he offered a speech in the hallway. He described witnessing “environmental devastation that has happened and will happen in southern Appalachian Ohio communities from wealthy outside interests developing oil and gas in the region.”

Abraham Bonowitz was another of the protestors on hand who showcased solidarity with the environmentalists. An anti-capital punishment voice representing the group Death Penalty Action, he spoke of a worry that criminalizing protest could lead to government overreach.

“Free speech is free speech,” Bonowitz said. 

After the other representatives had left the room and the hallway, Rep. Callender stayed to chat with several of the protesters. He told them he appreciated them speaking up and being part of the legislative process. Several criticized him as being hypocritical for promoting dialogue minutes after voting in favor of a bill they said would stifle environmental protests.

“That’s not what this (bill) is about,” Callender replied.

Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, is seen speaking to protesters following the committee vote. Capital Journal photo by Tyler Buchanan.

The representative then stuck out his hand to thank a younger protester for speaking up. They didn’t budge.

Callender drew his hand back.

“Ok, then,” he said.

“We’ll hold you accountable,” a woman told Callender as he turned to leave. 

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.