FILE - Oil refinery pipeline

Several Ohio residents and those representing interest groups say they oppose legislation that would increase penalties for people who trespass or cause damage while protesting against natural gas pipelines and other properties deemed to be critical infrastructure.

Under Senate Bill 33, anyone who damages the property of critical infrastructure would be guilty of a third-degree felony, which could potentially land someone up to five years in jail. Monetary fines for organizations deemed complicit in the property damage could be up to $100,000 under the legislation.

The opponents of the bill argued in front of the House Public Utilities Committee that the legislation was too broad and could lead to hefty fines for groups that organize protests if just a few of their members damage property. They argued that the legislation was violating free speech and association and was meant to intimidate environmentalists, and they insisted that there were already sufficient laws in place to arrest people for criminal trespass and property damage.

“[The bill] is chilling to the free speech and association rights of every Ohio citizen,” Carla Rautenberg, speaking on behalf of Cleveland East Move to Amend, testified. “The Ohio Constitution guarantees Ohioans the right to assemble in a peaceful manner to consult for the common good, to instruct their representatives and to petition the General Assembly for the redress of grievances.”

Rautenberg said that the environment is a common good and that Ohioans have a right to protest in favor of clean air, clean water and the prevention of chemicals leaking into the ground. She said that the laws in place to punish criminal behavior are sufficient and that the bill is “punitive” and “unnecessary.”

Lawmakers who support the legislation argued that it wouldn't violate free speech and assembly because it would only seek to increase punishments for people who damage property.

Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, told the bill’s opponents that he is also concerned about free speech, but asked them to cite lines that would put restrictions on peaceful protests. He said the bill only increases penalties on people who willfully cause damage to property.

Mary Ellen Berger, speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club, echoed Rautenberg's perspective.

“This is an assault on our freedom of speech and right to assemble,” Berger said. “We cannot criminalize nonviolent protests; this is unconstitutional.”

Berger said that protesters should not be subject to excessive fines or prison sentences and warned that property damage of “critical infrastructure” is so loosely defined that it could include the act of someone nailing a flier to a telephone pole.

The bill has already passed the Senate with support from all Republicans and one Democrat. All other Democrats opposed the bill. If it passes through the committee process, it will receive a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and Ohio for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.