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Civil rights groups fear proposed Ohio law could restrict protests, free speech, even cell phone video

Debate whether bill protects police or limits free speech
Cleveland Racial Injustice Protest_7095.jpg
Posted at 5:37 PM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-22 19:25:42-04

COLUMBUS  — Civil rights groups are raising concerns over a proposed state law they fear could restrict free speech during protests and rallies, while law enforcement groups argue it's vital for the protection of both the police and the public.

Concerns include whether police could order bystanders to stop taking cell phone video for fear it may interfere or disrupt police activity.

House Bill 22, which would expand the offense of obstruction of justice, underwent a fourth public hearing Thursday before a House committee where it was first introduced in February.

Under the proposed legislation, obstruction of justice would be expanded to include "failure to follow a lawful order from a police officer or diverting a law enforcement officer's attention."

So far, major law enforcement groups across Ohio have supported the measure, including the Ohio Buckeye Sheriff Association, Ohio Highway Patrol, Ohio Prosecuting Attorney's Association and the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police.

Even so, at least 100 other individuals and civil rights groups have testified against the measure, warning it would have a chilling effect on both free speech and the right to peacefully assemble.

"The ACLU in Ohio and across the country have defended protesters for years, even decades, who have been arrested for using their cell phones," argues the ACLU's Gary Daniels, who says police can use the proposed bill to justify arrests for obstruction of justice.

In recent weeks, defense attorneys for Derek Chauvin even argued that bystanders using cell phones were a distraction that contributed to the death of George Floyd.

Ohio Republican state representative Shane Wilkin co-sponsored the legislation and insists it is "not aimed at curtailing free speech" but instead "protecting both police and the public" from violence that may erupt during protests.

Mark Weinman represents the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police and says the bill addresses not only rallies and protests but crime scenes, where it is also needed.

"When crowds are coming around them, shoving them off while trying to handcuff, assaulted with bottles of water," says Weinman, adding that no one wants police officers assaulted while trying to do their jobs.

Here in Cleveland, police clashed with demonstrators protesting the death of Floyd last year.

Police and protesters clash during Black Lives Matter Protest in Cleveland on May 30.
Police and protesters clash during Black Lives Matter Protest in Cleveland on May 30.

Steve Holecko, who is with the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, warns the new legislation would inhibit those attending peaceful protests by "intimidating your First Amendment right and your right to assemble."

Meanwhile, some legal analysts see the Ohio legislation among 34 others across the country which are cause for concerns.

"There is a strong component across this country that would like to see things just as they are no matter how detrimental or traumatizing they may be," said Case Western University Law Professor Ayesha Bell Hardaway.

Thursday's hearing on the legislation saw proponents drop sections from the bill that dealt with "harassing" language as well as changing the felony provision "to where it would have to be something that causes physical or bodily harm" to the police officer.

It remains in committee, where further hearings, testimony and possible changes could be implemented before a vote.

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