Editorial: Ohio bill limiting free speech must be muzzled

A recent editorial by the Toledo Blade:

Free speech should not be a Republican or Democratic issue. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Freedom of speech and assembly must never be partisan issues. Legislation to limit free speech or impose penalties and liability for the exercise of free speech go against the principles of our democratic republic.

House Bill 109 would impose such restrictions. The bill passed the Ohio House Wednesday. The legislation now moves to the Senate.

The Senate should let the bill die.

The bill is almost certainly unconstitutional — and that means if it should become law, taxpayers would foot the bill for legal challenges. The bill also fails the necessity test. The bill is unnecessary. It’s more a political statement than good law.

An overreaction to the George Floyd protests in 2020 led to this bill. Indeed, some of the protests got out of control or were used as a screen by lawbreakers. That was not the norm. In about 8,000 demonstrations between May and August of 2020, 93% were peaceful, according to the U.S. Crisis Monitor.

Riots are illegal. Property crimes and assaults already stand as offenses in the law books. The bill would enhance penalties and create some new offenses, which largely include crimes already covered in the penal code. Laws against obstruction of a police officer and assault on a police officer already exist.

The worst provision of the bill is aimed at organizations who plan and coordinate protests. Organizations committed to peaceful protest cannot control criminal elements or those seeking to riot. Organizers of peaceful protest must not face liability for the actions of rioters.

Many U.S. Republicans have sympathized with the protests by Canadian truckers and others against coronavirus restrictions. The same Republicans have criticized the Canadian government’s use of emergency rule to disperse those demonstrations and charge protesters.

Yet in Ohio, the Republican General Assembly majority effectively pushes legislation as draconian, if not more so, to deploy against protesters.

Laws attempting to limit or discourage protest can backfire. The laws can be used against folks in the future if the “other side” gains the upper hand in the political world. And unfortunately in the present–day United States, there’s rarely unity and more of other–sidedness.”

Targeting free speech is not the answer to anything. Living in a democracy requires the ability to put up with the discomfort occasionally caused by citizens exercising their rights.

Violations of the law during protests can be punished.

Above all, free speech must be protected.

— Toledo Blade, February 17