CONCORD, N.H. — When a female Democratic lawmaker spoke out on social media against a bill co-sponsored solely by her male Republican colleagues that would make it a misdemeanor for women to expose their nipples in public, the attacks were quick — and personal.
Republican Rep. Josh Moore responded to Democratic Rep. Amanda Bouldin's Facebook post and suggested that if women want to expose their breasts publicly, they should have no problem with men wanting to "stare at it and grab it." Republican Rep. Al Baldasaro told Bouldin that her nipple was "the last one" he would want to see.
On Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper — without specifically mentioning the situation — told the 400-member body in remarks to open the 2016 legislative season that they needed to behave themselves, saying the eyes of the nation were on New Hampshire and its leadoff presidential primary.
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," Jasper said.
The bill was filed in response to the rise of the national "Free the Nipple" movement. 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 local law changed.
Bouldin said she's received support from all corners of the globe since the Facebook thread went viral, with commenters accusing Moore of promoting assault. She said her top priority is making sure the bill, and a similar bill in the Senate, doesn't make it to the governor's desk. She wonders whether her colleagues' reactions would have been so personal if a man had criticized the bill.
"I want to be treated as an equal in the Statehouse, and I want my thoughts to be taken into consideration, not my body parts, when I make arguments," Bouldin said.
Moore has since dropped his name as a co-sponsor of the legislation, saying he's drawn negative attention to the bill that could prevent it from having a fair hearing. He said his words were taken out of context and misrepresented, and he's sorry if anyone took offense to his comments about grabbing a woman's breasts.
"I'm sorry if that's the way they took it. I stand by family values. That's my character. That's who I am," he said. "Everybody makes mistake, whether you're in the spotlight or not."
Moore said he agreed with Jasper's call for civility.
Earlier Wednesday, Jasper's leadership team attempted to block the bill from being introduced. House Majority Leader Dick Hinch, a Republican, 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.
Some representatives 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 — including Moore — voted in favor.