CONCORD, N.H. >> Lawmakers backing a bill to criminalize women exposing their breasts in public said Monday they're trying to shield families and children, especially those drawn to New Hampshire's beaches — a big tourist draw.
"It's a shame that some folks are more concerned with exposing their breasts in public places than they are concerned about how families and children may be impacted by being forced to experience this evolving societal behavior," Republican Rep. Brian Gallagher told a legislative committee. "This is about a movement to change the values of New Hampshire society."
Gallagher is a sponsor of legislation that would make it a misdemeanor for women to show their breasts or nipples in public with "reckless disregard" for whether it would offend someone. It's partly a response to a "Free the Nipple" movement that led to two women being cited for going topless at a Gilford beach last year. The bill also caused an online spat among several state legislators that drew national attention after a male lawmaker said if women want to show their breasts in public they should be OK with men wanting to "grab" them.
At Monday's public hearing, backers of the legislation cautioned that allowing women to go topless at beaches will create a slippery slope where women are going topless at public libraries and Little League baseball games. Gallagher and Rep. Peter Spanos, a co-sponsor of the bill, said New Hampshire could lose tourism dollars if women are wandering public places with their breasts uncovered. Both said they brought the legislation in response to concern from constituents over the incident in Gilford.
But opponents charge such a ban violates the constitution by creating different standards for men and women. Kari Stephens, a Hampton resident who said she goes topless at the beach, argued lawmakers shouldn't be taking away a right that women in New Hampshire already have.
"We are not lunatics, we are not radical, we're not looking to go to football games topless or libraries or school meetings," Stephens said. "If there is a man in a public space who is obviously comfortable enough, then why should I not have that same right?"
The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the bill.
In early February, a judge dismissed the Gilford case, saying the town lacked authority for a prosecution because there is no state law that prohibits the exposure of female breasts in public. But the judge also said women's exposure was not symbolic expression protected by the First Amendment and didn't find the town's prohibition violated any constitutionally protected right.