CLEVELAND — Republicans at the Ohio Statehouse are backing four bills aimed at criminalizing or increasing penalties associated with behavior at protests in the wake of mass demonstrations that swept across Ohio last year in response to the death of George Floyd.
Separate bills working their way through the Ohio House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, seek harsher penalties for anyone who provides “material support and resources” to those who engage in rioting and potentially subject them to prosecution under Ohio’s racketeering laws.
The bills copy language directly from state anti-terrorism laws in defining what they mean by providing material support.
Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican from Lima, has signaled he may be reticent to move the bills. While he declined to be interviewed, he told The Columbus Dispatch that protecting law enforcement is important, but “that usually can be done with better techniques rather than changes to the law.”
State Rep. Cindy Abrams, a former Cincinnati police officer, said the “Ohio Law and Order Act” she is cosponsoring with Rep. Sara Carruthers, of Hamilton, ”in no way infringes on the constitutional right of Ohioans to freely speak and peacefully assemble.”
“But it does say that when misconduct occurs, then the law is broken, those responsible will be held accountable,” Abrams said in her written testimony.
Ohio law defines aggravated riot as five or more people who gather to commit a felony or an act of violence. Riot is a lesser offense when five or more people gather to commit a misdemeanor such as intimidating a public official or employee.
ACLU of Ohio chief lobbyist Gary Daniels said the bills would have a “chilling effect” on free speech rights.
Daniels is especially concerned about the bill sponsored by Abrams, of Harrison, and the similar bill in the Senate sponsored by State Sen. Tim Schaffer, of Lancaster.
“They’re equating protests or those who engage in civil disobedience with terrorists,” Daniels said.
Under Ohio’s current terrorism law, those found guilty of providing support and resources can have their assets seized and organizations shut down.
“If you pay the bail of someone arrested, is that not material support?” Daniels said. “Is providing legal counsel not material support?”
Another bill in the House would outlaw taunting or throwing objects at police officers and criminalize failing to follow police orders. A fourth bill, introduced in the Senate, would allow businesses and government agencies to seek reimbursement for damages protesters cause.
Schaffer, who is the primary sponsor of both Senate bills, said he introduced the measures after being “infuriated and frustrated with the lawlessness of the riots last year and resulting public outrage across the state.”
Around 100 people were arrested in downtown Columbus last spring during a protest, mostly for failure to disperse. Columbus police said five officers were hurt after a protest in late May.
Around 70 people were arrested during protests May 30 in Cleveland. Cleveland police subsequently opened 20 investigations into officer misconduct, including for excessive force, harassment and unprofessional conduct, according to cleveland.com.
Several hundred people were arrested in Cincinnati. Businesses and buildings were damaged in all three protests, though it is not clear if anyone was charged with rioting in relation to the protests.
House Democrats introduced three bills last summer regarding police reform as their response to the mass protests. All were referred to the State and Local Government Committee. None, however, received a hearing.