Proposed law would make it a misdemeanor to 'obstruct the law' while masked

CINCINNATI -- A proposed Ohio law would add a new type of misdemeanor to the state constitution: Masked intimidation, or donning a disguise to "obstruct the execution of the law."

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said Friday he pushed for the bill specifically with protests in mind. According to him, people who would otherwise be peaceful can be emboldened into violence by the anonymity a mask provides.

"We can protest, but you aren't supposed to come in and destroy property, assault people and cover your damn face," he said.

He did not cite local examples but said he had seen online videos of masked activists becoming destructive.

The bill would not make the wearing of a mask to a protest a crime in itself, but would add an additional misdemeanor charge to a suspect's docket if they committed an obstructive crime while masked.

However, Black Lives Matter organizer Brian Taylor said the law, if implemented, could be interpreted in a way that allowed police to target any protester.

"People have a right to express themselves, and I think this is an attack," he said. "The sheriff has a long history of doing things that are supportive of an oppressive agenda."

He added he believes going masked is sometimes a necessity for protesters who might face career or social consequences for participating in activism.

Attorney Marty Pinales said it's likely a moot point either way: A bill like this is incredibly difficult to pass.

"There is absolutely no way that would be constitutional," he said. "They can't pass a law that says you can't wear a mask; they can't pass a law saying you can't wear a red coat when you do it; they can't even pass a law saying you can't wear a KKK outfit."

The closest extant law in Ohio, which makes it a felony to wear a white cap or mask while committing a misdemeanor, was passed in 1953 to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan.

In the 65 years since its passage, no one has been charged.

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