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Smoking ban in vehicles with children passes Senate

A controversial bill that would ban smoking in any vehicle with a passenger younger than 8 passed the state Senate 27-19 on Wednesday after debate that centered largely over the role of government.

Supporters argued that the bill was about protecting children from the toxins of secondhand smoke and cited a range of studies showing the negative effects tobacco products have on children. They said the age requirement was for enforcement reasons, noting that children younger than 8 are required to use a car seat, making it easier for police to spot.

“If we do nothing we are condoning threatening the life of young people who have no voice,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. Pinsky said the bill raised questions about what role government should play in light of science.

Although opponents did not disagree that scientific evidence affirms secondhand smoke is harmful, they warned of government intrusion into private life and the bill’s broader repercussions.

“Cheeseburgers are next,” cautioned Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, arguing that government instructing citizens about unhealthy behavior was a slippery slope.

Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, who proposed a killer amendment last week that was later stripped from the bill in a rare parliamentary procedure, invoked George Orwell as he voiced his opposition to the bill. Opponents, however, said such warnings were overblown.

“This isn’t about big brother,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery. “It’s about little brother in the back seat, in the car seat.”

The ban must still be approved by the House of Delegates.

SLAPP reform defeated

By a narrow 21-25 vote, the Senate defeated a bill that would have revised statutes concerning strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Commonly called SLAPP suits, these lawsuits concern a deliberate attempt to stifle critics by burdening them with overwhelming legal costs until they abandon their criticism. Typically such lawsuits concern a small publication being sued by a wealthy person or organization.

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, sponsored the bill and said it was ultimately about balancing the scales and defending those who cannot afford to fight for themselves. Frosh added that Maryland has the weakest SLAPP suit statutes in the country.

Opponents, however, argued that the bill would give protection to those who ruin reputations. Speaking passionately against the bill was Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who said the bill would only protect defamers and liars.

Other senators worried about a changing media landscape. Citing a declining Annapolis press corps and the rise of some “unscrupulous blog sites,” Sen. Joseph Getty, R-Baltimore County, said he had grave concerns that the bill would embolden such sites.

“We’re going to see a distinct change in the way things are covered,” Getty warned.

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