Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Ohio bill might restrict rights of protesters

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Ohio is one of only ten states without a law allowing police to arrest people who fail to disperse during a riot. That could change under a proposed law that civil libertarians and student activists in Ohio say that would violate their First Amendment rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union may fight the legislation in court if it gains full approval from the Ohio General Assembly, said Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the ACLU in Ohio.

Police, who lobbied for the proposal, say the law would give them a tool to stop rioting - and to clear the scene of a fire or other emergency.

"It's going to give police the opportunity to clear the area, which is what they really want," state Sen. Jeff Jacobson, a Dayton-area Republican who sponsored the law, said Monday. "That's the purpose of it."

The Senate has passed the law and sent it to the House, which could act on it this fall or next year, Jacobson said. Republicans control both chambers.

Ohio lawmakers also inserted into the state's new budget a provision which would take away student financial aid for up to two years from students convicted of failing to disperse at the scene or a riot or other emergency.

"There's real concern that, because of the loss of financial aid, students from lower-income groups will be disproportionately affected," said Kris Long, legal counsel to the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Forty states already allow police to arrest people for failure to disperse. Four Ohio communities - Athens, Kent, Pepper Pike and Akron - also give their police that authority. Two of those, Athens and Kent, are home to major colleges which are sometimes the scene of protests or mass gatherings.

Under Ohio's current law, police can only issue tickets to people who fail to disperse when told to do so by an officer. Police can arrest the person only if he or she has already been warned by the officer and defies a second order.

In an emergency, officers don't have the time to wait around and see whether a person will obey an order to leave the area, Jacobson said.

His bill would keep the offense a misdemeanor, but would allow increased penalties of up to a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. Michigan law makes failure to disperse a felony crime, he said.

Columbus police, who confronted riots that rocked the Ohio State University campus last year, backed the proposal and sent Lt. Jeffrey Puls to testify before the Senate criminal justice committee.

"This legislation is for when there is an escalation of events," Puls said. "You can't write tickets in the middle of a riot. People who are peacefully assembled wouldn't be in that situation in the first place."

Hans Schellas, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, said he has participated in nonviolent demonstrations where police detained him and others without giving a reason.

"When you have a different agenda than the status quo, it's shocking how easily your rights are violated," Schellas said.

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