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The Massachusetts House this week approved a bill to pump an extra $1.5 billion — that’s billion with a "b" — into public education over the next seven years.
But that’s not the “b” word that got a lot of media attention — here and even around the world — this week.
No, it was House bill 3719 that generated the most buzz (yes, another “b” word). The legislation would make it illegal to call someone a b---- (another word for a female dog). It was one of 69 bills given a hearing by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
The legislation, most people would agree, is an obvious violation of the First Amendment, but nevertheless, once filed it must be given a hearing, and that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday.
The outrage — fueled in part by sports-talk radio, social media and some tabloids — was swift and loud. The Massachusetts Republican Party took to Twitter to attack the bill and its sponsor, Boston Democratic Rep. Daniel Hunt.
Hunt said a constituent asked him to file it and defended himself on Twitter, writing: "One of the responsibilities of all Representatives is to serve as a conduit for direct petitions from our constituents."
But it seems when filing the legislation with the House clerk, Hunt failed to click the checkbox to indicate it was a "by request" bill, leaving his the only name on the legislation — an oversight he probably regrets.
Massachusetts citizens have had the right to free petition since Colonial times, a right that's enshrined in Article 19 of the Massachusetts Constitution. Anyone can write a bill, no matter how outrageous, and ask a legislator to file it on their behalf.
In the current two-year session, there are 192 such bills, according to a WBUR tally, out of more than 6,000 bills filed by lawmakers. Some legislation is filed every session, others are new. Almost all of them — if not all of them — will ultimately die a quiet death after a public hearing, where oftentimes even the citizen backing the bill fails to show up to testify in favor of it. And just because citizens have the right to file legislation, there is no requirement that the Legislature take action on the proposal.
Having “by request” printed on the top of a bill can inoculate lawmakers from any blowback the proposed legislation may create. A lawmaker can simply step aside and in essence say, “Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.” Policies about filing a bill on behalf of a constituent vary from legislator to legislator. Some say they never file such bills, while others view it as a form of constituent service.
Democratic Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen has this session filed 25 bills by request.
"We as legislators represent thousands of people and get all sorts of requests for citizen bills, sometimes that we ourselves might find to be outlandish in nature," she said in an statement. "I think it's always a huge concern that someone will misconstrue and publicize what is simply a citizen petition as a stamp of approval by the legislator when in reality we may actually oppose the legislation."
Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, has filed 29 bills by request this session.
"I think it's important that citizens have the right to offer their ideas as part of the legislative process," Lewis said during a break in Thursday's Senate session. "I always try to support constituents when they approach me with a bill that they would like to file."
He says his staff works with the constituent to understand the bill's objective and, if necessary, helps them draft the language of the bill to ensure the language is constitutional and does not conflict with existing state and federal laws.
But what about filing legislation he is adamantly opposed to? Lewis says he wants to be respectful of their right to offer their proposal.
"I would say as long as we feel that it's not unconstitutional, or it wouldn't be in violation of federal law, I think we would generally still try to offer it by request, even if it is legislation that I personally would not support," Lewis said, adding he makes it clear to a filer that just because he's presenting a bill does not mean he supports it.
Not all "by request" bills are rejected.
For instance, in the late 1960s, the Rev. John Wells of the First Parish Church in Lexington submitted a bill to Rep. H. James Shea Jr. of Newton.
The bill, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Frank Sargent, said that Massachusetts service members could decline combat duties in foreign countries, if the conflict was not declared war by Congress. The law was designed to be a test case to be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course at the time, the Vietnam War was raging, despite not being officially declared by Congress.
According to a New York Times article, Shea said he did not even read Wells' bill before filing it on his behalf, but decided afterwards to support it, "to the exclusion of my other legislative duties."
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