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Ohio Activists Object To Increased Penalties For Damaging 'Critical Infrastructure'

Demonstrators shouting chants outside of a House Public Utilities Committee hearing in the Ohio Statehouse.
Andy Chow
Ohio Public Radio
Demonstrators shouting chants outside of a House Public Utilities Committee hearing in the Ohio Statehouse.

A coalition of advocates say an Ohio bill that creates a new criminal mischief prohibition can have a chilling effect on protesting at places like oil and gas pipelines.

About two dozen people from environmental, anti-povert, and religious groups interrupted an Ohio House committee meeting Wednesday with loud chants. Their demonstration spilled out of the committee room and into a hallway of the Statehouse.

Joan Van Becelaere, executive director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, says increased penalties for damage that occurs while protesting can hamper their free speech.

"Raising our voices, saying our words, actually can create energy. And it actually has been known to change hearts and minds," says Becelaere.

The bill, SB33, expressly prohibits a person from knowingly destroying or improperly tampering with a "critical infrastructure facility."

Supporters of the bill stress that it's only about preventing damage at critical infrastructure and that it doesn't hamper a person's ability to exercise their freedom to "protest peacefully."

"This proposed legislation is aimed at those who cross the line and intentionally damage critical infrastructure and, in turn, place the facilities and more importantly the lives or workers and/or the general public in jeopardy," says state Sen. Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction), the bill's sponsor, in written committee testimony.

The bill passed out of the House Public Utilities Committee on Wednesday and now awaits a floor vote in the Ohio House. It has already passed out of the Ohio Senate.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.