(New York, NY) — A proposed state law in Ohio threatens to unduly restrict protest rights and undermine First Amendment freedoms, PEN America warned today. The legislation—HB 109—was voted out of committee last Wednesday and may soon reach Ohio’s House of Representatives for a full vote.

“This is yet another attempt to redraw the lines around ‘acceptable’ protests, with provisions that will foreseeably be used to target even peaceful protesters as criminals,” said James Tager, PEN America’s director of research. “Any effort to criminalize protest is dangerous, but what makes HB 109 especially troubling is how clearly it is aimed at strengthening criminal penalties for conduct associated with racial justice protests, as well as the potential for it to be wielded even against nonprofit groups that never participate in protests at all. This bill and similar ones advancing around the country are wearing away at the First Amendment rights to express oneself, to assemble peacefully, and to petition leaders for change. We call on Ohio legislators to reject HB 109 and the antidemocratic mentality behind it.”

HB 109 is what PEN America has labeled a “kitchen sink” bill, combining a host of anti-protest provisions into a single legislative package. The bill would make organizations liable for providing aid to individuals who go on to commit riot, potentially ensnaring non-profits that hold “know your rights”-style trainings. HB 109 would also create a new felony crime of “riot vandalism,” defined to include vandalizing monuments and memorials—strengthening the criminal penalties for already-illegal protest tactics commonly associated with racial justice activists. It would also increase penalties for obstructing traffic during a riot or “protest or demonstration for which no permit was issued or for which the scope of any issued permit was exceeded,” a vague and easily attained benchmark.

The bill is part of a much larger trend of anti-protest bills introduced in reaction to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. PEN America released Closing Ranks: State Legislators Deepen Assaults on the Right to Protest in May 2021, tracking the flood of anti-protest legislation in the year after the murder of George Floyd, including Ohio’s HB 109. This followed the 2020 report Arresting Dissent: Legislative Restrictions on the Right to Protest, which documented such bills introduced from 2015 to 2019. In both reports, PEN America explains how Ohio HB 109 and other bills like it are best understood as attempts to restrict protest-related conduct and expression.