State representatives will now be allowed to use their cell phones on the floor during House sessions and the speaker will be empowered to clear hearing rooms, galleries and other spaces if a disturbance or disorderly conduct is anticipated.
The Ohio House adopted the rule changes earlier this month at the beginning of the new two-year legislative session.
Previously cell phone use was banned. Now lawmakers can make calls or use their smart phones as long as it's for legislative business and not disruptive or disrespectful.
The speaker has always been in charge of maintaining decorum and order on the House floor and has had the ability to order the House gallery and other areas cleared if there are actual disturbances. But a tweak to House Rule 11 expands that power to include clearing the areas in cases of "actual or anticipated" disturbances and a change to Rule 26 gives the Sergeant at Arms the authority to work with the Ohio Highway Patrol to clear out areas.
Conceivably, the new rules could be invoked to clear out areas when unhappy citizens show up to witness debate and votes on unpopular legislation, such as Senate Bill 5, the anti-collective bargaining measure which drew thousands of Ohioans to the Statehouse in 2011.
House Republican Caucus press secretary Brittany Warner said that's not the intent; instead, the idea was to add more specific language to an existing rule.
"This is in no way intended to limit access the public has to the Statehouse," she said.
But Mike Brickner, policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, said the rule change is concerning.
"Even the most innocuous things could be perceived as a threat by some people," he said. "We have to keep an eye on it. It depends on how it they're implemented. It may never be used in two years. It could also have a chilling effect on people who want to go witness democracy in action."