Ohio Supreme Court: ‘Targeted picketing’ ban unconstitutional

By: - September 14, 2022 4:55 am

Justice scales, books and wooden gavel. Getty Images.

The Ohio Supreme Court took issue with a ban on “targeted picketing” of public officials in a Tuesday ruling.

The court was unanimous in ruling that an education board violated picketers’ rights by putting a stop to public protests, calling Ohio Revised Code language on “encouraging” or organizing a protest at public officials’ homes or workplaces “a form of expressive-activity suppression that is irreconcilable with the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The law was brought up in relation to a labor dispute from the Portage County Educators Association for Developmental Disabilities.

A 2017 collective-bargaining negotiation reached an impasse, and the group filed a notice of intent to strike, leading to picketing on seven dates that October.

Members of the educators association picketed outside PCDD board members’ homes and one private workplace.

Board members filed charges of unfair labor practices with the State Employment Relations Board, under revised code language that bans employee organizations or individuals from the organizations from encourage picketing a private residence or employer “in connection with a labor dispute.”

The employment relations board found the educators association members had violated the law, even issuing a cease-and-desist order for further protesting, and the association appealed the decision to the Portage County Common Pleas Court. The association claimed the board’s decision violated the picketer’s First Amendment rights.

When an appeals court reversed the board’s decision and found the picketing law unconstitutional, SERC and the PCDD appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote the ruling, saying the court was not “unsympathetic to the burdens that these board members and other public officials must occasionally endure in the performance of their official duties.”

“We do not question the sanctity of the home as a place of personal refuge or the importance of an employee’s workplace,” Donnelly wrote.

But board members’ status as public officials does not “insulate them from the robust marketplace of ideas,” the court ruled, and the First Amendment “makes that marketplace possible.”

The court also said there was no indication the private employer on whose property education association members’ picketed “was threatened, coerced, or restrained from engaging in business with the board.”

In terms of private residences, the court deferred to local ordinances and state criminal codes “to preserve law and order in the event of disruptive conduct that disturbs residential privacy and are justified without reference to the content of the expression.”

“On each occasion, the picketing (in Portage County) took place entirely on public streets or sidewalks,” the court wrote. “There is no evidence that any labor picketing involved obstructive or disruptive behavior.”

The protests described in the court case stand in contrast to protests the state has seen at other local public officials’ homes. During the height of the pandemic, Dr. Amy Acton, a public but not elected official, experienced protests at her home that included anti-vaccine activists, Proud-Boys-apparel-wearing men and anti-Semitic signs. A police presence observed the protests.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the protests at Acton’s home came after shots were fired at an Ohio Department of Health official’s home. They did not. The Acton home protests were in April/May of 2020. The shots fired happened in January 2021. We regret the error.)

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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