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A pernicious bill seeking to curtail Ohioans' protest rights that died at the end of the last General Assembly session is back. And this time, Senate Bill 33 — part of a nationwide effort to limit protest rights at natural gas pipelines — appears to be headed for passage. Republican legislators in Ohio who treasure constitutional rights and the rule of law should push back.

SB 33 would make certain types of protest at "critical infrastructure facilities" like pipelines or telecommunications facilities a third-degree felony, which can carry a prison sentence of nine months to five years. It would also subject organizations supporting such protests to fines ten times the maximum now provided in Ohio law — that is, up to $100,000 per violation. And whistle-blowers who warn of safety concerns at infrastructure projects could be subject to similar sanctions.

The intent is obvious: to suppress protests or any impediments to such projects, curtailing Ohioans' free-speech rights in the process, along with the right to peaceable assembly guaranteed in the state constitution.

In Ohio Senate testimony last month, Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, warned that the bill's vague language could make something as innocuous as posting notice of a legal protest on a telephone poll subject to the bill's criminal charges and fines. SB 33's harsh penalties also could "intimidate whistleblowers" into remaining silent on safety hazards, Miller warned.

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As our editorial board noted in opposing a version of this bill that died at the end of last year, SB 33 is unneeded. Ohio already has perfectly adequate laws on criminal trespass, criminal mischief and aggravated trespass. Nor can backers of the law point to a single incident in Ohio that merits such legislation.

Yet earlier this month, SB 33 flew out of the Ohio Senate on a largely party-line 24-8 vote, with the support of a number of usually level-headed local Republican lawmakers. They included Sens. John Eklund of Geauga County, Kristina Roegner of Summit County and Kirk Schuring of Stark County.

The bill is now pending in the Ohio House Public Utilities Committee, led by Rep. Jamie Callender of Lake County.

It should be shelved, for the good of all Ohioans and to preserve the free-speech rights that all of us treasure.

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— The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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