Among nearly 200 recently passed bills Gov. Larry Hogan is set to sign into law Thursday are measures that will give authorities more leeway in prosecuting perpetrators of hate crimes and online bullying.
One bill prohibits even making a threat of a hate crime, inspired by a spate of bomb threats made to Baltimore-area Jewish community centers in 2017. And while Maryland’s anti-cyberbullying statute, known as Grace’s Law, was considered groundbreaking when the General Assembly passed it in 2013, in practice, it was “virtually unusable” in stopping harassment of children via social media, said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
The governor’s office said he plans to sign what is being called “Grace’s Law 2.0,” which Zirkin said more directly addresses ways cyberbullying occurs, such as through posts that can be shared with thousands of people in an instant.
“This law puts us way ahead of the curve in terms of dealing with this issue,” Zirkin said. “This stuff is going on all over the place, and it’s only getting worse.”
Other bills the Republican governor is scheduled to sign include measures to reform the board of directors of University of Maryland Medical System, to allow the private Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to create a police force, and to establish “Freedom of the Press Day” in the state to honor the victims of last year’s Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis.
Thursday’s will be the first of four bill signings in April and May as Hogan reviews hundreds of pieces of legislation the General Assembly approved this year during the 90-day session that ended April 8. The other bill signings are scheduled for April 30, May 13 and May 23.
The governor’s initial post-session bill-signing ceremony customarily occurs the day after the legislature adjourns. But Hogan delayed it this year out of respect for the House Speaker Michael Busch, who died April 7 while being treated for pneumonia.
In Busch’s place Thursday alongside Hogan and Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will be Speaker Pro tem Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is vying to succeed Busch. Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh and Prince George’s County Del. Dereck Davis, both Democrats, are also running for speaker.
Hogan has until May 28 to decide what to do with bills lawmakers sent to his desk. He can veto them, sign them into law or allow them to become law without his signature. Most new state laws go into effect July 1 or Oct. 1.
Some of the bills he is expected to sign were among his legislative priorities. The legislature’s Democratic majority supported Hogan’s proposals to classify felony human trafficking as a violent crime, and to increase prison time for repeat drunk drivers and those who drive impaired with a child passenger.
Others were among the most urgent, controversial and popular of the session.
As a scandal over no-bid contracts for some UMMS board members continues to unfold, including a deal for Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh of Baltimore to sell her “Healthy Holly” books to the health system, legislation will require current members to resign. It will also prohibit future members from holding single-source contracts with the hospital network. The legislation became a priority of legislative leaders, including Busch, after The Baltimore Sun reported last month that a third of the system’s board members held contracts with the institution.
June 28 will be the state’s first Freedom of the Press Day, marking the anniversary of when a gunman killed five Capital Gazette employees in Annapolis: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. Lawmakers unanimously approved the joint resolution that Hogan plans to sign, establishing the annual commemoration.
With a student protest ongoing at Johns Hopkins over the issue, Hogan is scheduled to sign legislation authorizing the university to establish its own police force. The bill includes provisions for public accountability for the department and calls for more than $10 million in community investment in areas around Hopkins’ three campuses.
Lawmakers and advocates say the criminal justice bills to be signed Thursday close significant loopholes in existing state law.
The original Grace’s Law was considered novel legislation, passed in memory of Howard County teen Grace McComas, who committed suicide in 2012. Zirkin said it was modeled after state law that outlaws harassment, and it attempted to translate that policy to the world of social media.
But in practice, it wasn’t always helpful. It required that a victim be directly targeted by a bully, and only allowed that perpetrator to be prosecuted if harassment continued after the defendant received a warning that their actions violated the law.
The new Grace’s Law removes those requirements, allowing authorities to crack down on a single social media post that intends to or does cause serious emotional or physical injury to a child. It carries a misdemeanor penalty of up to 10 years in prison or up to $10,000 in fines. It allows families to seek peace orders against cyberbullies, and adds provisions to prohibit using fake profiles or disseminating doctored images to harass someone online.
Democratic Del. Sandy Rosenberg helped craft Maryland’s first hate crime law some three decades ago, but when threats were called in two years ago to Jewish community centers around the region, authorities were limited in their possible response, he said. The hate crime law extended only to “attempts” to target protected groups with harm or violence.
“We discovered that a threat to commit any hate crime is a step removed from an attempt,” Rosenberg said.
After Hogan signs the bill, threatening to commit a hate crime will be a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine up to $5,000, starting Oct. 1.
Another bill will codify a list of categories of hate crimes (such as crimes directed against people because of their skin color, religious beliefs, gender, disability, national origin or homelessness) that must be reported to the Maryland State Police. State police spokesman Greg Shipley said the agency already collects the data required under the legislation, but sought to update language in state public safety law “to be certain” hate crimes are reported properly.