Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Failure to disperse: Powerful law

A new approach to riots

A new Ohio law that went into effect last week should go a long way toward quelling riots at the state's college campuses. But it must be used judiciously in its enforcement.

In recent years, rioting at Ohio universities, including its three largest campuses - Ohio State, Kent State and the University of Cincinnati - have caused extensive property damage, injured people and tainted the reputations of those schools.

Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Dayton, filed the bill in March specifically in response to riots that happened last fall after the Ohio State-Michigan game. At that game, firefighters were pelted with rocks and debris, nine cars were overturned and more than 100 fires were set. Because of the size of the crowd police had a hard time getting to where crimes were taking place.

Along with making actual rioting a more serious offense, the law gives police the ability to arrest bystanders for not leaving when ordered to. Previously, police could only issue citations, a recourse that's of little use in an emergency.

Most importantly, laws such as this one have worked. In the city of Kent, near Akron, a similar law has altered that city's large-scale college block parties. By subjecting onlookers to arrest, police can take control of a situation much more quickly.

The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns that along with ending large parties, the threat of prosecution will curb free speech. Hardly.

The statute states that the law does not apply to those who are "peaceably assembled for a lawful purpose." The language, in drawing the line between legitimate political dissent and drunken revelry, and the proper enforcement of the law, should assuage any fears.

But because it's such a powerful law - a conviction means a year suspension from school and loss of federal financial aid for two years - police must be careful not to abuse it in their enforcement. It is not to be used for basic crowd control or political purposes, but for real safety threats.

It's incumbent on law enforcement and the courts to tread carefully and rely on a narrow interpretation of when the law is appropriate.

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