COLUMBUS, Ohio - There was a packed house Wednesday at an Ohio Senate committee hearing on a bill that could silence a form of free speech.
Senate Bill 250 would tighten the state's laws regarding trespassing and property damage involving oil and gas pipelines, and other industrial infrastructure. (Read more from our previous coverage here
The legislation is similar to many bills in other states in response to the 2016 protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Guy Jones, a Native American from Dayton who testified in opposition, contends SB 250 intends to impede on the rights of citizens.
"The right to gather and to voice their opinion in opposition to the things that are happening in our backyards, in our communities, in regards to the threat against Mother Nature, against the land, the water, the air," he states.
Supporters say the measure would strengthen protections for critical infrastructure and discourage demonstrations.
But opponents counter that the bill's language is vague and could result in the criminalization of peaceful protests through felonies and excessive fines.
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for ACLU of Ohio, also testified. He explains SB 250 specifically mentions actions that "impede or inhibit" the facility's operations or its construction - terms that he says could be broadly interpreted.
He maintains the Senate Judiciary Committee was surprised by the testimony.
"I don't think that they realized that the bill was so expansive, that it had such a potential impact on free speech," he states. "It's fair to say, and I suspect there's a general agreement, that this bill goes too far."
If the bill becomes law, a typical first degree misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief would become a first degree felony. Supporters argue it would protect citizens by safeguarding utilities and industries communities rely on.
But Jones contends it's all about corporate interests.
"The rights of corporate America far exceed the rights of its citizens," he states. "You know, that's the way I see it. And you have corporate America, who wants to basically put together, put in place, a means for them to continue to make money."
The committee heard written and in-person testimony from 21 opponents on Wednesday.
Reporting by Ohio News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by The George Gund Foundation.