Editorial: Ohio ‘anti-riot’ bill is an instrument of intimidation to silence free speech


A recent editorial by the Columbus Dispatch:

There are times in most self-reflective people’s lives when they look back and acknowledge that they overreacted to something.

In that vein, we ask the Ohio House and Senate to reflect on House Bill 109 and realize that it is an overreaction and unnecessary, and to reject it.

Virtually every “problem” this bill was supposedly written to solve is already addressed in Ohio law – with specificity and without the vague and broad language that could ensnare innocent protesters.

As reporter Anna Staver wrote in a recent news story, the sweeping bill would increase the charges, penalties and civil lawsuits that could be filed against protestors in cities and towns across Ohio.

House Republicans passed House Bill 109 out of committee on Nov. 10, over Democrats’ objections that its vague language violates the First Amendment.

If the intent of the draconian proposal isn’t an attempt to intimidate people and scare them away from peaceful protests, the result, if this bill is approved, certainly would be a chilling effect on anyone who might consider using their constitutional right to public expression of their grievances.

This is especially true for marginalized people with little means – people who can’t afford lobbyists to carry their messages to lawmakers or lawyers to represent them if they run afoul of a bad law.

The threat of months in jail for blocking an intersection, or the possibility of a big civil judgment in a lawsuit filed by a police officer who could claim you made a “false complaint” under this bill, would give pause to anyone thinking about joining a protest.

It could effectively silence those with legitimate grievances and few other options for making them known.

Make no mistake: We condemn rioting and violence. Those who harm other people, overturn cars and smash windows – whether at businesses, the Ohio Statehouse or the U.S. Capitol – should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

But the majority of protests in the state capital – of which there are many each year – are peaceful. And temporarily blocking an intersection is not rioting.

Supporters say the “Ohio Law and Order Act” would protect police, peaceful protestors and free speech. But opponents say the penalties are far too harsh because, for example, five people blocking an intersection could meet Ohio’s definition of a riot under this bill.

Not throwing rocks or bottles. Just temporarily blocking an intersection while marching from, say, City Hall to the Statehouse.

That happened many days in Columbus and other cities across Ohio following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and after a Columbus police officer killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in April 2021. The vast majority of the protests that temporarily blocked intersections were peaceful.

They might have been disruptive, and it was technically illegal to block intersections, but those actions were not what any reasonable person would consider to be felony-level crimes.

And yet, under House Bill 109, protesters convicted of certain disorderly conduct crimes, such as blocking a street, could spend 180 days in jail if prosecutors labeled the event in question a riot or illegal protest.

The bill also would create a new fifth-degree felony called “riot assault,” which could become a more serious fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to 18 months in prison, if the victim is a police officer.

Assaulting a police officer is already a crime, up to and including a first-degree felony depending on the severity of the assault.

House Bill 109 also would expand Ohio’s corrupt activities law to include people or organizations who knowingly provided “material support or resources” to rioters.

When it comes to civil legal action, the bill would allow police officers who are injured during such events to file lawsuits against individuals as well as “any organization that provided material support or resources to the responsible party.”

Officers also could sue someone for filing a false complaint related to such incidents.

Those two points are alarming. A church that lends its bus to protesters, or feeds them, could be charged because it provided “material support.” And who decides what constitutes a “false complaint,” which is undefined in the bill, in a he-said, she-said argument between an officer in uniform and a protester?

Protestors might refuse to file legitimate complaints because they are worried officers will sue them, said Gary Daniels, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

There also is a fear that prosecutors would apply the riot label to certain protests – such as Black Lives Matter and gay rights organizations – but not others.

A similar bill passed in Florida was recently blocked by a federal judge, but other laws in states like Arkansas and Iowa have gone into effect.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee found that Florida’s “anti-riot” law was “vague and overbroad,” and amounted to an assault on First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, as well as the Constitution’s due process protections, according to an Associated Press report.

People engaged in peaceful protest or innocently in the same area when a demonstration turned violent could have faced criminal charges and stiff penalties under the law, the judge said.

A key issue is defining what the word “riot” means in the statute. Walker noted that past Florida laws sought to prevent demonstrations that could threaten segregationist Jim Crow-era practices.

“If this court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians,” Walker wrote.

“It unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance,” the judge added.

In Ohio, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association both testified in support of the House Bill 109.

“Peaceful protest deserves to be protected. Riots and vandalism do not,” Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association Director Lou Tobin said.

Blocking a street may seem like an annoyance, Tobin added, but it can delay life-saving care by slowing down ambulances.

As for making first responders a protected class, Tobin thinks that’s appropriate because Ohio is asking these people to put themselves in harm’s way in the name of public safety.

“Our first responders have an incredibly difficult job as it is,” Tobin said. “They should not on top of that be subjected to harassment and intimidation because of what they do.”

We agree that the job is challenging and dangerous, but this bill is less about protecting first responders and more about intimidation.

It is clearly an effort to silence people with legitimate grievances, and again, we ask the House and Senate to reflect on this over-reaction and reject the bill.

— Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 19