House bill would impose harsh new penalties on protesters and their organizations

By: - November 16, 2020 1:00 am

COLUMBUS, OH – MAY 28: Protesters demonstrated in Downtown Columbus near the statehouse in solidarity with nation wide protests against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images.

In the wake of this summer’s massive civil-rights protests, two Republicans in the Ohio House have filed a bill that imposes harsh new penalties on certain protest-related activities. The bill even goes so far as to allow people to kill protesters if they feel threatened by them.

The sponsors of the legislation say it isn’t aimed at curtailing people’s right to protest. Instead, they say, it would protect the public while simultaneously protecting the First Amendment right to free speech.

“Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are important cornerstones of our democracy,” one sponsor, Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, said in a statement. “This legislation embraces the right of all Americans to peacefully assemble and make their voice heard in the public arena while supporting first responders, law enforcement, small businesses and law-abiding Ohioans.”

However, the bill has some similarities to one passed last year by the Ohio Senate. Critics say that legislation — Senate Bill 33 — uses vague language and stiff financial penalties in an attempt to intimidate organizations from supporting protests in the first place.

For example, the word “tamper” is loosely defined in SB 33 while it imposes harsh penalties on people who tamper with others’ property. The legislation also would allow triple financial damages against organizations alleged tamperers belong to — regardless of whether the organization had any foreknowledge of the activity.

Similarly, House Bill 784, the measure filed last week in the House, relies heavily on  the term “riot.” Yet it is only loosely defined in Ohio law as “participating with four or more others in a course of disorderly conduct…”

The new legislation appears to be in response to this year’s protests against the police killing of George Floyd. In Ohio, some of the demonstrations resulted in smashed windows, looting and other property damage.

“When businesses are boarded up and shut down as a result of the actions of a few agitators, law-abiding Ohioans lose, small businesses lose, and jobs are lost,” Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, a cosponsor, said in a statement. “This is a commonsense bill that supports the right to peacefully assemble while holding accountable those who break the law.”

It seems, however, to go beyond that in important respects. 

For example, it says that if a law enforcement officer is injured in a protest, “an organization that provides material support or resources… is responsible for that conduct and liable to the peace officer in treble the amount of damages sustained as a result of the conduct.”

Similar language in SB 33 was interpreted by environmental organizations as an attempt to intimidate them from supporting actions such as pipeline protests by threatening them with financial ruin.

Also, while HB 784 creates avenues for injured police officers to sue protesters and organizations, it is silent about police misconduct during protests. 

Nationally, the news organization ProPublica in July reviewed 400 social media posts regarding police conduct during protests “and found troubling conduct by officers in at least 184 of them. In 59 videos, pepper spray and tear gas were used improperly; in a dozen others, officers used batons to strike noncombative demonstrators; and in 87 videos, officers punched, pushed and kicked retreating protesters, including a few instances in which they used an arm or knee to exert pressure on a protester’s neck.”

Similar incidents were reported in Ohio, including a June incident in which officers with the Columbus Police Department pepper-sprayed reporters with the Ohio State paper, The Lantern, who had clearly identified themselves as journalists.

Abrams, Carruthers and a spokeswoman for the House Republican Caucus didn’t respond to questions for this story. But a free-speech activist said the intent of HB 784 is to stifle it.

“With numerous other lame duck priorities facing Ohio and during a worsening global pandemic, House Republicans choose to concentrate on a dangerous, unneeded, and unconstitutional bill encouraging and endorsing vigilante actions,” Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said in an email. “The clear goal of HB 784 is to distract constituents from actual problems needing solutions and swirling Statehouse scandals.”

Among the provisions in the bill:

  • New penalties for blocking traffic — Now generally a misdemeanor, doing so during an unpermitted protest would be a third-degree felony carrying a maximum fine of $10,000 and a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
  • Increases penalties for “riot” and “aggravated riot” if there is property damage and creates a new crime called “riot vandalism” — Under the bill, the penalty for riot would now be a fourth-degree felony punishable by 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine, while aggravated riot would be a third-degree felony. Damage to government property or gravestones during a demonstration would be “riot vandalism,” a second-degree felony, punishable by up to eight years in prison and a $15,000 fine. 
  • Creates a new crime called “riot assault” — It says that if someone participating in a riot “recklessly” causes harm to another, the person causing harm is guilty of a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. If the person harmed is a police officer, the penalty is a third-degree felony.

Perhaps most strikingly, HB 784 creates a sort of stand-your-ground right during protests. It says “a person who reasonably believes that the person is in danger of imminent bodily harm may take any steps necessary to flee or escape from persons engaged in aggravated riot or riot… and is justified in using or threatening to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to escape the aggravated riot or riot.”

In at least that respect, it’s similar to legislation proposed last week by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that would expand that state’s stand-your-ground law.

Among the questions that HB 784’s sponsors didn’t respond to was whether they knew of any real-world examples showing why it’s necessary to allow deadly force during what they term “riots.” They also didn’t respond when asked whether the provision was a recipe for violence by encouraging armed people to attend protests.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.