On Tuesday, March 21, the Maryland Senate passed Senate Bill 956 – Criminal Law – Threats to Public Officials, a MACo initiative sponsored by Senator Ron Watson. The bill, which criminalizes threats and harassment impeding the work of certain public officials, will now be heard by the Maryland House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee.
SB 956 has faced several significant hurdles to its passage. Due to drafting delays, the bill had initially been assigned to the Maryland Senate’s Rules Committee, which acts as a gatekeeper for late filed bills. Through Senator Watson’s and MACo’s advocacy, the bill was re-assigned to the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee. Again, due to its late introduction, SB 956 received a somewhat abbreviated hearing March 16th allowing only for the bill sponsor’s, Senator Watson’s, testimony:
“This bill is not intended to stifle free speech and debate, but instead promote it through civil discourse… The need for this bill is so great that the Maryland Association of Counties’ leadership made it one of their four initiatives for the 2022 legislative session.”
Though constrained to sponsor-only testimony, the Committee chose to hear from Anne Arundel County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman, who provided a compelling narrative in support of the bill :
“Prior to the pandemic, I think we were much less visible. We didn’t have these types of issues… With COVID, we became obviously very visible, Health Officers did… We get a lot of feedback- some of it positive, some of it negative… We have not experienced threats like this before… I, myself, have had police protection at times.
Dr. Kalyanaraman’s testimony echoed that of health officers who testified in support of Senate Bill 298 and House Bill 267 – Criminal Law – Threat Against Public Health Official or Hospital Staff Member, bills also receiving strong support from MACo. Perhaps due to the forceful arguments made to protect health officers and limited time to fully explore the complexities of SB 956, the Maryland Senate advanced a somewhat pared down version of the bill, excluding the original’s protections for county election administrators and housing/building inspectors.
Despite its many setbacks, Senate Bill 956 will receive full consideration by the House of Delegates and is on track for passage. MACo expresses its many thanks to Senator Watson for his continued support of this critical legislation.
Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2022 legislative session on MACo’s Legislative Tracking Database.Learn more about MACo’s 2022 Legislative Initiatives.Read more General Assembly News on MACo’s Conduit Street blog.