On Thursday afternoon, the chief of staff for the New Hampshire House of Representatives sent a brief email to the chamber’s legislators. The email contained a newly revised policy against sexual harassment, a simple set of rules and recommendations designed to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct in the house. Members were instructed to sign and return the last page, signifying that they had read the document.
That evening, legislators started writing back. And they replied-all.
“I ask you please do not sign this,” wrote Republican Rep. John Burt, in an email forwarded to Slate by several sources in the New Hampshire government. The policy “would stop all of my speeches. This is Political Correctness gone wrong.” He explained:
When I said last Wednesday that hunting husbands can go deaf and not hear their wives talking to them, I meant no harm by that. It was a joke. But under [the policy], I would be in trouble if one person found it offensive which one or two did.
According to Slate’s sources, Burt was referencing a recent speech that joked about nagging wives pestering their sportsman husbands. He feared he would be barred from making further jokes about henpecking wives by a provision of the policy that notes that “conduct that is intended as a ‘joke’ ” can qualify as harassment.
Burt then added a note from his “friend,” Republican Rep. Al Baldasaro—who is perhaps best known for telling a fellow representative that “your nipple would be the last one I would want to see.” The note mentioned Article 30 of the New Hampshire Constitution, which guarantees “the freedom of deliberation, speech, and debate” in the Legislature. Baldasaro quickly replied himself, asserting that “I will not be signing the policy letter that steps on Freedom of Speech. This is a backdoor way to stifle debate and silence legislators.”
In an interview with Slate on Friday, Baldasaro defended his position.
“I don’t support sexual harassment,” he said. But the new policy “takes it a little too far. If somebody is out of line and grabs or touches a woman, they should be put in jail. To silence legislators, to make them be careful of what they say—I disagree with that.”
Unlike Baldasaro, Burt walked back his opposition somewhat by Friday afternoon.
“I may have jumped the gun a little,” he told Slate. “I thought the policy was directed at representatives, but it’s really not. It’s so the state has some standard of disciplinary action if a representative goes out and harasses an employee.”
Slate also talked to Republican Rep. Victoria Sullivan, who had concurred with her colleagues’ concerns in her own reply-all. “How can a person be held responsible for another person’s reaction to a comment?” she asked in that email, in response to a portion of the policy stating that a harasser need not intend to sexually harass someone in order to violate the rules. “Who among us has not said something innocently only to have it be taken the wrong way? I will not be signing this.”
Sullivan told Slate that the policy wasn’t actually binding on representatives, since the House creates rules for its own members. Legislators only had to acknowledge that they received it. Still, she said, the policy concerned her because “it makes you responsible for another person’s interpretation of what you say.”
The sexual harassment brouhaha began shortly after Baldasaro and Republican Rep. Josh Moore made crude comments about Rep. Amanda Bouldin’s breasts, in response to her opposition to a bill that would outlaw public exposure of female nipples. Moore had declared that he should be allowed to “stare at” and “grab” Bouldin’s breast, though he later said his comments were misinterpreted. (“I stand by family values,” Moore clarified.) Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper opened the 2016 session with a call for civility, but his plea was loudly spurned by several conservatives—some of whom are now rejecting the harassment policy, as well.
Not every legislator on the email chain disapproved of the policy. Some pointed out that representatives have an absolute constitutional right to say whatever they wish on the House floor. Others emphasized that legislators need only state that they read the policy, not that they will follow it. Eventually, the debate deteriorated into an argument over whether a Democratic representative really said “I think we should euthanize all the elderly.” (He did not.)