CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Fresh off a social media spat over women exposing their nipples in public, the New Hampshire Legislature is caught in a dust-up over a new harassment policy that some lawmakers said restricts their rights to free speech.
House Speaker Shawn Jasper said he got emails from several indignant lawmakers who vowed not to sign the policy because they said it infringes on their rights as lawmakers. It was developed over several months and emailed to lawmakers on Thursday.
Among the most strident objectors was Republican Rep. John Burt, of Goffstown, who urged colleagues in an email not to sign the policy, calling it "political correctness gone awry."
Burt told The Associated Press Friday he may have jumped the gun, but he said he wants everyone to have the freedom to bluntly express themselves so he knows where they stand.
"I do not want the PC police in there with sirens blaring, saying, 'Oh, that hurts my feelings,'" Burt said. But he added, "I think I took it the wrong way when I received it."
Jasper, a Republican, said the policy makes no attempt to curb lawmakers' free speech during political debate, but Burt was not the only one who took it that way.
"Some made it clear they got it, clearly didn't read it, but were complaining nonetheless," Jasper said. "There are a few people who like to make noise about things."
Last week, some lawmakers were scolded after a debate over a bill to make it a misdemeanor for a woman to expose her breasts in public devolved into personal attacks and lewd comments on social media.
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.
The debate spilled onto Facebook, where Republican Rep. Josh Moore responded to Democratic Rep. Amanda Bouldin's 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.
In remarks to open the 2016 legislative season on Jan. 6, Jasper did not specifically mention the situation but told lawmakers to behave themselves.
On Friday, Jasper said those who complained about the harassment policy did not amount to "a huge number out of 400" — a reference to the amount of members in the New Hampshire House.
In his email to colleagues, Burt recapped some of the recent, colorful comments made on the House floor, including his own remark last week about how hunting husbands can go deaf and not hear their wives talking to them.
Burt said he said he took exception with the policy provision stating that "Even unintentional conduct — including conduct that is intended as a joke — can be a violation of this policy."
"I am known as the person who cracks the jokes and that's how I win some of my votes," he said.
Jasper said lawmakers' comments on the House and Senate floors are constitutionally protected, no matter how offensive they may be, and only their elected colleagues can take action in response. He said the policy applies only to comments to employees and staff members and is all about liability.
This story has been corrected to remove a statement that was incorrectly attributed to Jasper, instead of Burt.