A top state legislator warned his colleagues Wednesday to be civil following a social media spat over a bill barring women from exposing their nipples in public.
Lawmakers "have a responsibility to act with dignity, to act with respect, because we represent not only ourselves but our constituents and, in fact, the entire state of New Hampshire," Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper told the 400-member body in remarks to open the 2016 legislative session.
Jasper's admonishment comes after two male legislators were criticized for crude Facebook comments aimed at Democratic Rep. Amanda Bouldin, who opposed the legislation and noted that it had all male sponsors. The bill would make it a misdemeanor for women to purposely expose their nipples publicly without regard for whether it might offend or alarm someone. It includes an exemption for breastfeeding.
A Republican representative filed the bill in response to the rise of the national "Free the Nipple" movement that is gathering steam here. Two New Hampshire women appeared in court last month for violating an ordinance in Gilford that prohibits women from going topless, and they're trying to get the law changed.
In response to Bouldin's Facebook post, Republican Rep. Josh Moore, one of the bill's co-sponsors, wrote that women who want to expose their breasts should have no problem with a man's inclination to stare at it and "grab it."
Rep. Al Baldasaro, another Republican, chimed in to disparage Bouldin's appearance.
"No disrespect, but your nipple would be the last one I would want to see," he wrote. "You want to turn our family beach's (sic) into a pervert show."
Jasper didn't specifically mention those comments during his call for civility, but earlier Wednesday his leadership team attempted to block the bill from being introduced. House Majority Leader Dick Hinch called it "too controversial" and noted the pending court case. The effort failed, and the bill will be up for a public hearing and debate this year.
At a time when the nation's eyes are on New Hampshire and its leadoff presidential primary, Jasper said, inflammatory remarks bring negative attention to the state and the Legislature. But some representatives from his own party said Jasper's remarks were an attempt to shut down free speech.
Republican Rep. Dan Tamburello protested efforts to include Jasper's remarks in the House's permanent journal. He said representatives don't need to be "lectured as if we were a bunch of third-graders."
Baldasaro, for his part, didn't back away from his comments to Bouldin, and he also accused Jasper of trying to quash free speech.
"We have a constitution," Baldasaro said. "It's there for a reason, and I'll never be silenced."
He said his comments specifically referenced Bouldin's body because he was engaged in a debate with her.
The majority of House members gave Jasper a standing ovation. Just 41 representatives voted against permanently recording the remarks, while 313 voted in favor.
Moore has since withdrawn as a co-sponsor of the bill, writing on his Facebook page that he has drawn negative attention to the legislation and wants it to have a fair hearing. The original posting has been taken down.
"My initial comment was altered by many outlets to appear as if I suggested that sexual assault would be an appropriate response to public nudity," he wrote. "I emphatically denounce any man's unwanted advances towards any woman under any circumstances."