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Government/Politics

Riot-related offenses bill passes Ohio House, over protests that it's an anti-free speech measure

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Karen Kasler
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Statehouse News Bureau
State troopers form a line at the bottom of the Statehouse steps as protestors assemble on the west side of the building on May 31, 2020. While some protestors were seen shouting at troopers, there were some that also spoke to them and fist-bumped them as the demonstration was breaking up.

Republicans say the bill creates new riot-related crimes and ups the penalties for existing ones, but Democrats say it's an assault on the First Amendment.

A Republican-backed bill proposed after protests over the killing of George Floyd in 2020 brought some violence and damage near the Statehouse has passed the Ohio House on a party line vote. Democrats say it's unneeded, and its broad and vague language will have a chilling effect on free speech.

The bill is aimed at protecting business owners and law enforcement. But Rep. David Leland (D-Columbus) said almost all of the activity covered in this bill is already against the law.

“This bill is unnecessary, it’s dangerous, but really at its core, it’s simply unAmerican," Leland said.

Sponsor Rep. Sara Carruthers (R-Hamilton) said it's not an anti-First Amendment bill, and that "vandalism, looting and violence are not free speech." And she said while this bill was proposed after the George Floyd demonstrations, it isn't just about what happened with protests over police action in the summer of 2020, She said violence and vandalism happened on January 6 in the US Capitol, but noted no Democrats brought that up.

“Personally, I feel that that was wrong. How would you all feel if something like that happened here? Would we agree with that? Would that be ok? No. It’s the same thing," Carruthers said. "I heard those voices too. This is not a racial issue, not even close.”

But Rep. Janine Boyd (D-Cleveland) said Congress hasn’t passed any legislation like this because of the January 6 insurrection.

And Boyd said this bill is about race, especially when considering the pepper-spraying of Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce at a George Floyd protest near the Statehouse in May 2020.

“And they all happen to be Black. All three of them that were pepper sprayed happen to be Black. I don’t want it to be about race any more than you do," Boyd said.

Former Montgomery County Sheriff and now Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) said the measure is not about race but accountability.

“The guy that murdered George Floyd was held accountable in the criminal justice system. That’s justice. But breaking into our businesses, walking out with armloads of shoes and washers and dryers, is not justice. It is not a voice for the voiceless. That’s wrong," Plummer said. "This bill is about right and wrong.”

There are no Black members of the Ohio House Republican caucus. Thirteen of the 35 Ohio House Democrats are Black.

Supporters said the bill has been tweaked to make sure it doesn’t affect peaceful protestors. But the chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio has said this is the worst free speech bill he’s ever seen in Ohio.

The measure now goes on to the Ohio Senate.

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