Editorial: Senate should nix attempt to silence Ohio protesters

A recent editorial by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The Ohio House has sent to the state Senate House Bill 109, which would make rioting a felony and which seeks to discourage protests through enhanced penalties for protest damage and for protest organizers.

The bill is constitutionally suspect and also unneeded.

Aggravated rioting is already a felony under Ohio law – but rightly requires aggravated circumstances, such as intent to use or cause violence or the use of, or intent to use, a deadly weapon. Felonious assault is also, by definition, a felony — and in Cleveland, prosecutors didn’t hesitate to charge May 30, 2020 protesters with felony crimes when they believed the charges were warranted. Criminal damage to property is also already a felony in Ohio if it involves risk of harming others.

The purpose of creating a whole new set of felony crimes for protesters and those who organize protests, as HB 109 seeks to do, is clear: to discourage protests, including the peaceful exercise of protesters’ First Amendment rights.

The bill was prompted by widespread protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd that the bill’s backers note caused costly damage in Ohio cities. But given that the bill was written after Black rights protests, not following other protests, critics suggest its intent is actually to “disproportionately target underserved and marginalized communities and minorities calling for justice,” as state Rep. Philip M. Robinson Jr. of Solon put it.

HB 109′s sponsors are GOP Reps. Cindy Abrams, of suburban Cincinnati, a former Cincinnati police officer, and Sara Carruthers, of Hamilton. The House passed it 60-35 with one Republican voting “no” (Rep. Jamie Callender, of Lake County) and one Democrat voting “yes” (Rep. Jeffrey A. Crossman, of Parma, a candidate for Ohio attorney general).

HB 109 is a solution in search of a problem. The Senate needs to protect the civil liberties of Ohioans — all Ohioans — and sink this bill.

— Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 27