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Senate Bill 250 limiting free-speech rights in Ohio is unneeded and pernicious: editorial

December 2, 2018

Senate Bill 250 limiting free-speech rights in Ohio is unneeded and pernicious: editorial

The state constitution guarantees Ohioans the right to “assemble together, in a peaceable manner, to consult for their common good.” The common good includes a clean, healthy environment.

But if an Ohioan protests potential environmental perils involving, say, a natural gas pipeline, a pending state Senate bill could be used to limit his or her rights of assembly and free speech by escalating criminal trespass charges to felony crimes and increasing organizational fines tenfold. That’s flat-out wrong.

At issue is Senate Bill 250, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Frank Hoagland, of southeast Ohio. The bill was voted out of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee Wednesday, largely along party lines, after amendments modified some of its more objectionably vague language and downgraded potential first-degree felony charges for criminal trespass to third-degree felonies, but failed to cure its core First Amendment threats.

The bill appears to have been inspired by the massive 2016 protests against the Dakota Access pipeline project near Standing Rock Sioux tribal land in North Dakota -- even though those protests were 1,000 miles away. The bill lists natural gas pipelines among a long list of “critical infrastructure facilities” that would be subject to the new third-degree felony charges (now misdemeanors) if protesters knowingly enter or remain on such a facility.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, one of more than 30 people who testified against the bill, was on target when she called SB 250 “a solution looking for a problem.”

It’s unclear why Hoagland and others supporting SB 250 feel Ohio’s current trespassing laws are inadequate -- but if they are, turning misdemeanors into felonies and deterring organizational involvement in protests through punitive fines simply to stamp out such protests is unacceptable.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio’s Gary Daniels told the Judiciary Committee that SB 250 and its related bills across the country “are meant to end and severely limit criticism, exposure of ... corporate wrongdoing, or anything that merely inconveniences” the builders or operators of “critical” infrastructure.

SB 250 aims to make Ohioans put up, and shut up, in the face of environmental challenges. The state Senate’s GOP caucus might not know it, but that’s not how democracy works. 

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.   

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