COLUMBUS, Ohio – Supporters of a new bill introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives want to more broadly criminalize the wearing of masks in public – a move which some see as encroaching on the rights of protesters.
Sponsored by Ohio state Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and George F. Lang, R-West Chester, House Bill 423 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 was born of concerns about violent confrontation between masked protesters and demonstrators.
“The sheriff of Butler County – a Sheriff Jones – approached me with this issue this summer in the wake of the Charlottesville fracas, and suggested that Ohio law could be strengthened to give law enforcement better tools to defuse potentially violent situations where you have the masked Ku Klux Klan marching in one direction and the masked Antifa group marching in the other direction, each bent on a confrontation,” Seitz said.
Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones said he approached Seitz after watching protests and “the disturbance that’s been going on.”
“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 said. “So I asked, could we get some legislation introduced that would at least start with the masked people that come to these demonstrations.”
There is already an Ohio law that prohibits wearing a mask while committing a crime, similar to laws in other states, according to The New York Times.
Seitz says the law was originally made to combat the Ku Klux Klan.
But some people – including Lee Thompson, a Cleveland-based member of Refuse Fascism, a movement opposing the Trump presidency – see the bill as a tool against left-leaning activist groups.
“This is just one of many of these kinds of laws that are either being proposed or being passed that specifically are targeting people protesting this whole regime,” Thompson said.
Refuse Fascism is, according to its website, a “movement of people coming from diverse perspectives, united in our recognition that the Trump/Pence Regime poses a catastrophic danger to humanity and the planet, and that it is our responsibility to drive them from power through non-violent protests that grow every day until our demand is met.”
“I’ve never seen anybody in the Klan or Nazis or any of these fascists get arrested for wearing a mask,” Thompson said. “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.”
Thompson mentioned a recent controversy related to violent protests – the press conference President Donald Trump held following the Charlottesville incident, in which he said “both sides” were to blame for the backlash.
Others, such as Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent, D-Columbus, a member of the House Criminal Justice Committee, say those who wear masks to protests may have legitimate reasons for doing so.
“For a number of reasons, people don’t want people to see their faces,” Kennedy Kent said. “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.”
Kennedy Kent added she feels wearing a mask to a protest is “the right that they have.”
Another Democratic committee member, Rep. John Rogers, D-Mentor-on-the-Lake, added that it’s “very difficult to estimate what human behavior will be” when laws are changed.
“So, in this situation, what they’re suggesting is that if they were to enhance the penalty by virtue of the fact that somebody is wearing a mask, the idea is hopefully people don’t wear a mask when they commit a crime,” Rogers said. “Well, people who commit crimes don’t adhere to the law in the first place.”
According to Seitz, the bill’s goal is to prevent violence before it would have a chance to start, and is based on an established law in Massachusetts.
“A law on the books in Massachusetts, for a long time, going back to the time of the Kennedys, makes it a crime to wear a mask with the purpose of intimidating others into not conducting their lawful duties, preventing persons from exercising their constitutional rights, or obstructing official business,” Seitz said.
“And so, we are patterning this law exactly after the law that is in effect in Massachusetts. And that is what we are trying to accomplish, so that if there are masked demonstrators that have the purpose of doing any one of those three things, they can be arrested and detained and ultimately tried and convicted for the masked intimidation crime that this bill creates.”
Jones said he talked with others in law enforcement, including his employees and deputies, police chiefs and the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association – and came to the conclusion there wasn’t sufficient legislation to stop those with masks.
“I’ve seen other protests, where people cover their faces at peaceful protests that end up not being peaceful, and it’s usually the people with the mask or their face being covered that do the attacking, and we just needed some help from our state legislatures, which we received,” Jones said.
Specifically, the text of the bill criminalizes wearing a mask 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.”
Of course, the bill’s wording of “interruption” and “intimidation” could be interpreted in different ways – though Seitz maintains legislation such as ORC 2921.03 and ORC 2921.04 could clarify. Because of these laws on intimidation, however, questions are already being raised about the possible redundancy of this bill.
“There are other states that have done it, but not many; but we’ll be one of the few and I’m very proud of it. And in Ohio, if you want to wear a mask and come to a demonstration, you’ve basically committed a crime, I believe is the way it states,” Jones said.
If the bill becomes law, Ohio would join the ranks of states with broader anti-mask laws. It still has a long way to go, however, after its first hearing in the House Criminal Justice Committee on Dec. 12, where Seitz and Lang spoke as its sponsors.
“I’m going to be listening to, I’m sure, opponent and proponent testimony,” Kennedy Kent said. “But right now, I don’t see that being something that I would want to happen … they should be able to put on a mask if that’s what they choose to do. As long as they’re not committing a crime.”
Subsequent hearings are yet to be scheduled, according to Rogers. Until then, the proposal will live in legislative limbo.
“We’re certainly not able to compel people not to wear a mask, I mean if they want to wear a mask, they have the right, in my view, to wear a mask,” Seitz said. “I guess people have the right to do that. Certainly Batman wore a mask, and the Lone Ranger wore a mask. People wear masks for all kinds of reasons.
“But if you’re doing it for the purpose – and that’s the key word – for the purpose of preventing other people from exercising their constitutional rights, or obstructing official business, or intimidating others into not exercising their lawful duties, then it should be a crime, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”