Hearing on Ohio Bill to Limit Protest Ends in — What Else? — Protest

January 30, 2020by Marty Schladen, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (TNS)
Protesters demonstrate outside a hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020 in which an Ohio House committee approved a bill that would increased penalties for trespassing around and damaging facilities such as oil and gas pipelines. (Marty Schladen/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The chairman on an Ohio legislative committee Wednesday told a packed room that he wouldn’t hear spoken testimony on a bill that most in the audience believe is intended to stifle protest. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the matter ended in a loud protest.

The House Public Utilities Committee approved, largely along party lines, Senate Bill 33, a measure that supporters say is intended to protect from vandalism and other attacks “critical infrastructure” — energy pipelines, coal mines, power plants and the like. Critics, however, say it’s an industry-funded measure intended to intimidate people and the groups they’re associated with from protesting projects they believe are harmful.

The bill is fashioned after model legislation promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group funded in part by energy companies such as Findlay-based Marathon Petroleum Corp. and Koch Industries.

Ten states so far have enacted similar laws, starting in the wake of 2016’s protests on the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota to which Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers were dispatched. It would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to “knowingly enter or remain on” pipeline rights of way, even when they’re on public land or when protesters have property owners’ permission to be there.

It also would make it a third-degree felony to “knowingly destroy or improperly tamper with” a pipeline or other critical infrastructure. But its supporters in October wouldn’t define “tamper.”

Further, the bill would subject groups to fines of up to $100,000 if their members commit such felonies — an amount that could devastate nonprofit environmental groups and churches, the bill’s critics say.

“It’s meant to intimidate nonprofits and it’s meant to intimidate us into not using our voice,” said the Rev. Marian E. Stewart of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s hearing, the seventh on the bill, 45 people filed written testimony on Senate Bill 33. They were all opposed to the measure.

In the midst of a busy legislative day, Committee Chairman Jamie Callender, R-Concord, looked out over the room filled with people clad in clerical garb, tie-dye and yellow shirts saying “side with love.” He tried to soothe them by saying that he appreciated their activism and that he had learned from them, even if they didn’t get the outcome they wanted. Then the committee passed the bill, largely with Republican votes.

That didn’t sit well with the audience.

“We the people have a right to protest,” said one woman as she filed out.

“You aren’t the people’s government. You’re the oil and gas industry’s government!” a man shouted.

Once in the hall, the group of about 40 got really raucous, chanting slogans such as “This is our house!”

State troopers arrived and the protest died down, but activists said they’re not done fighting the bill.

“We’ve already sent a huge petition to the governor and we intend to go to the governor,” said the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, executive director or Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio.

The measure now will be taken up by the full House.

———

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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