Concerns about protests, sometimes violent, in government buildings have some lawmakers seeking stiffer criminal penalties.
Legislation in the House and Senate would impose jail time and fines for those who disrupt certain government proceedings. The proposal is running up against concerns that such legislation is unneeded and would chill free speech.
“This bill is about holding people accountable,” said Sen. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County and sponsor of Senate Bill 790.
“The events of January 6 and at other state capitals around the country show us this is not hypothetical anymore, unfortunately,” said Hettleman, who is a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Hettleman’s bill imposes penalties on a person who obstructs the official proceedings of the executive or legislative branches. The misdemeanor would be punishable by five years in jail or a $10,000 fine.
A similar bill remains in the House Judiciary Committee after a hearing last month.
“These tumultuous times demand that our executive and legislative branches of government co-equal branches to the Judiciary, deserve the same protections,” she said.
The bill imposes the same standard in current law that applies only to the state judicial branch. There, a person may not use threats, force or corrupt means to impede court proceedings.
“These same provisions do not apply to the executive or legislative branch,” said Hettleman. “All this bill does is say that it should.”
Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County and a member of the committee agreed.
“I’ve been here when we’ve had some very controversial bills the last couple of years and the security presence in this chamber and outside is beefed up. I assume it’s beefed up for a reason,” said West, who added the law applying to the courts was “sufficiently distinguishing from normal First Amendment attempts to be heard that i can support this bill.”
The bill ran into opposition from Sen. Bob Cassilly, R-Harford and a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, who said he initially understood the reasons behind the bill.
“We’ve had some really emotionally challenging stuff that you were sort of glad there was a metal detector at the front door kind of stuff in here,” said Cassilly.
But the conservative Republican worried the effect of the bill, if passed, would be to stifle the kinds of free speech not allowed in courthouses.
“It’s apples and oranges, not the same thing” said Cassilly.
“By contrast, we expect to have pretty boisterous, sometimes physical, even protests out and around this building or in the hallways often get quite lively with chanting and stuff, things you’d never dream of tolerating in a courthouse,” he said, adding later “Hey, that’s democracy.”
Hettleman pointed to a protest in the Michigan state capitol building as an example.
In May 2020, hundreds of protestors, some armed and many unmasked, stormed and occupied the state capitol protesting COVID-19 orders in that state.
“We don’t want that to happen here,” she said.
Maryland’s State House is not immune to protests and rallies. Many occur on Monday nights in Lawyers Mall as legislators return for evening sessions after the weekend.
In 2019, Maryland State Police escorted a woman out of a contentious hearing involving legislation that removed handgun permit review board from an appeals process.
Shari Judah got into a shouting match with lawmakers over the bill. Judah was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan but later removed from the panel after the Senate refused to confirm her.
She was not charged with disrupting the hearing. Instead, she was escorted outside and ordered to not return to the building for the rest of the day.
Sen. Will Smith, D- Montgomery and chair of the committee, said safety concerns must be balanced with public access and the right to protest must be .
“There’s got to be a balance,” said Smith. “At courts and private residences, completely inappropriate. Big no-go. Here, you expect and you like the interaction and this is the place where those voices should be heard.
“Sometimes it’s loud and sometimes its uncomfortable,” he said.
Smith found himself the target of activists who protested outside his Montgomery County home in an attempt to pressure him on police reforms.
Hettleman’s bill does not prevent protests outside the homes of lawmakers.
The bill has the support of the Maryland Association of Counties. The group asked the Senate Committee to amend the bill to extend the same protections to local governments.
Kevin Kinnally, the association’s legislative director, said there has been an “uptick in threats and disruptions at the local level.”
“We’re not talking about First amendment rights here,” Kinnally said. “We don’t want to chill anyone’s rights. We want to make sure if there is a threat or intimidation that is properly dealt with.”