Republican lawmakers in the Ohio House of Representative proposed legislation that would make it a crime to wear a mask with the intent of obstructing the law, the rights of others, or a person’s “legal duty.” The bill has drawn criticism from liberal protest groups and Democratic lawmakers.
Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones approached legislators about strengthening Ohio’s anti-mask laws in the wake of protests in Berkeley, California, and Charlottesville, Virginia. “I fully support freedom of speech, but when you start concealing your identity, that is a precursor for criminal activity,” Jones wrote in a Facebook post, according to WCPO Cincinnati. “I think enacting this law will be a deterrent to those contemplating committing a crime.” While it is already illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime in Ohio, Jones argues that enacting a broader anti-mask law would help law enforcement officers keep communities safe. “I believe that it’s not good when people throw rocks and they assault people and you can’t film or take pictures of who they are,” Jones told the Portsmouth Daily Times. “So I asked, could we get some legislation introduced that would at least start with the masked people that come to these demonstrations.”
Representative Bernadine Kennedy Kent is a Democratic member of the Ohio House of Representatives and a member of its Criminal Justice Committee. Kennedy Kent opposes this legislation and believes that an individual has a right to wear a mask. “For a number of reasons, people don’t want people to see their faces,” she told the Daily Times. “I mean, maybe it’s a job they have, maybe they don’t want their mom or dad to see what they’re doing… maybe they don’t want the police to know their identity to be maybe put on a list or something.”
HB 423 would criminalize wearing a mask with the intent to “obstruct the execution of the law,” to “intimidate, hinder, or interrupt a person in the performance of the person’s legal duty,” or to “prevent a person from exercising the rights granted to them by the constitution or the laws of this state.” Violating the law would be considered a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in prison.
The bill’s two primary sponsors and five co-sponsors are all Republicans. Liberal protest groups view the legislation as a partisan attack and a violation of the First Amendment. Lee Thompson, a member of the the liberal Refuse Fascism group, believes this law was proposed to target protesters opposed to President Trump’s agenda. “I’ve never seen anybody in the Klan or Nazis or any of these fascists get arrested for wearing a mask,” he told the Daily TImes. “That’s just a lame, very well-used excuse. Who did they arrest? They arrest people who are progressive, who are on the left, who are fighting for something better than this … that we live under right now. That’s who gets arrested for this stuff, for real.”
Brian Taylor, an organizer of Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, similarly thinks that this bill is aimed at silencing advocates of social justice. “There is a climate in this country as more and more people take to the streets to demand justice on number of different front [sic] there is an attempt by those who represent the state to limit and curtail democratic rights and it’s on every level,” he told Fox 19.
Representative Bill Seitz, a primary sponsor of the bill, believes that HB 423 does not interfere with the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. He told Fox 19 that “The aim of the bill is to give police one more de-escalation tool to use in these cases while preserving freedom to protest, masked or unmasked.”
Legislation Referred to Ohio House Criminal Justice Committee
The first hearing concerning HB 423 took place on December 12, 2017.
Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18
February 23, 2018