OHIO SENATE BILL 250 DETERRING DEMOCRATIC PROTESTS BY MASSIVE CRIMINAL PENALTIES

Senate Bill (SB) 250 is a thinly veiled attempt by the fossil fuel lobbies in Ohio to deter citizen protests at new oil and gas facilities, especially pipelines.  It was introduced on February 28, 2018, by Republican State Senator Frank Hoagland whose Senate District 30 covers southeastern Ohio where the majority of the state’s fracking industry is concentrated.  It is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee and may be fast-tracked for passage yet this year during the brief “lame duck” session that follows the November 6 election.

This fossil fuel industry effort appears aimed at stifling pipeline protests similar to those at the Dakota Access pipeline that caused widespread sympathy toward its largely Native American opponents who feared water contamination from pipeline spills.  Three states in that pipeline’s path have introduced their own versions of the ALEC bill (North and South Dakota and Iowa).  The Dakota Access pipeline parent company is Energy Transfer Partners, which also owns the controversial Rover pipeline in Ohio that has contaminated many areas across the state during its construction and has generated widespread public resistance.

ALEC describes this bill as codifying “criminal penalties for a person convicted of willfully trespassing or entering property containing a critical infrastructure facility without permission by the owner of the property and holds a person liable for any damages to personal or real property while trespassing.”  However, that description is misleading because these acts have already been criminal in Ohio for a century or more.  What the bill actually does is add a definition for “critical infrastructure” to these long-standing crimes and then significantly raises the imprisonment and fines above current law if such critical infrastructure is in any way involved.   While industry proponents claim the bill addresses acts of terrorists, it does not amend Ohio laws defining terrorism[1] that already have high penalties.  Instead it addresses common trespass and property damage offenses that may occur at some public protests.

A second goal of the bill is to intimidate large environmental groups who support pipeline protests by subjecting them to criminal penalties for “complicity” with trespassing individuals and makes them liable for greatly increased fines that are ten times larger than the already increased fines for individuals.  Virtually all of the major national environmental groups were supportive of the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline and were instrumental in publicizing the protests.  This provision is clearly intended to keep them on the sidelines in the future for fear of being found guilty of felonies and facing large criminal fines.

SB 250 as introduced has received a great deal of criticism for how severe it sanctions activities that are protected by the First Amendment as proper acts of civil protest.In response, a “substitute” bill is being circulated at the Statehouse that has been drafted by the bill’s sponsors to mute that criticism.A substitute bill wholly replaces an earlier version with a single vote and can therefore be quickly adopted with far less discussion than a bill receiving individual amendments.  This new draft is a mixed bag of positive and negative changes but does not alter the bill’s overall intent to deter lawful protest. 

In short, while the initial bill’s most obvious excesses are scaled back in the substitute, the overall breadth of conduct criminalized is significantly increased and its ability to stifle lawful protest extended.  Both versions of SB 250 are terrible legislation that demonstrates how rash the fossil fuel industry and its legislative supporters have become in their eagerness to suppress constitutionally protected protest activities around their most indefensible facilities, even to the point of subjecting moral Americans to cruel physical confinement for grossly excessive periods of time.