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Civil Rights Advocates Decry New Ohio Anti-Protest Legislation

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As Ohio quietly moves to bring down a larger hammer on those who trespass on oil and gas infrastructure, activists and civil liberties defenders fear the crackdown against the Capitol Hill insurrection two weeks ago will be used to justify further suppression [1] of fair protest.

Following Louisiana, North Dakota, Texas, and nine other states, Ohio has become the 13th in the past four years “to legislate harsher penalties for trespassing on or otherwise interfering with energy and industrial infrastructure—a move that activists and civil liberties groups say is a transparent attempt to criminalize non-violent protest,” writes [2] Grist.

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Signed into law by Republican governor Mike DeWine, Senate Bill 33 has made “trespassing on oil and gas sites a first-degree misdemeanour punishable with up to six months in prison and a US$1,000 fine.” The new law marks a savage redoubling in penalty: before the bill’s passage, criminal trespass was a “fourth-degree misdemeanour punishable with up to a month in prison and $250 in fines.”

The law will also make those who “improperly tamper” with critical infrastructure liable for a “third-degree felony that could result in up to five years in prison.” And most harmful to legitimate protest, “organizations that support such activities could also face civil lawsuits and up to $100,000 in fines.”

The idea behind the new law is “to chill protests [1] at oil and gas industry sites,” said Joan Van Becelaere, executive director of Unitarian Universalist Justice of Ohio. 

Environmental groups vigorously fought the bill when it was first introduced in 2018, fearful the proposal “would be used to block protests against a large plastic plant planned along the Ohio River,” writes Grist. 

Citing the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which has been tracking the rash of anti-protest legislation at the state level, Grist adds that “most of these laws bear a striking resemblance to model legislation [4] developed by the conservative non-profit American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and have been sponsored by lawmakers with ties to the organization.”

Ohio Senate Bill 33 fits that description, as it was sponsored by Republican state senator and ALEC member Frank Hoagland.

Now, in a roiling and bitter irony, civil rights groups are warning that the recent attempted coup [5] by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol will further fuel the move toward harsher suppression of legitimate, non-violent protest.

“First Amendment advocates worry that the riots in Washington, DC may serve as cover for new legislation that will primarily target peaceful protesters who bear little resemblance to last week’s rioters,” explains Grist.

“What happened last week has added a new challenge in the fight for protest rights,” said Nora Benavidez, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “We’re trying to make really clear to people that peaceful assembly and gathering together is one thing, but an insurrection with the intent to usurp government authority is completely different.”