NH House passes buffer zone 162-100, barely making a quorum

[Edited March 2016 to remove dead hyperlinks.]

The New Hampshire House voted 162-100 to pass SB 319, which now goes back to the Senate for concurrence with an amendment. The vote followed a long procedural discussion about imposing short time limits on speakers, with motion piling up on motion until an up-or-down vote to limit debate finally occurred.

By seven votes, 143-150, the House refused to limit debate. That was the high-water mark for the First Amendment today.

“La-la-la, can’t hear you …” as the kiddies in the back seat might say

Thirteen pro-life and pro-free-speech representatives signed up to speak in opposition to the bill, compared to four signed up in support. When the opponents started talking, SB 319 supporters simply left the room.

Reps. Kelleigh Domaingue Murphy (R-Bedford) and J.R. Hoell (R-Dunbarton) noted on Facebook that this rudeness almost worked against the buffer zone. If only four or five more reps had left the room, there would have been no quorum, which would have meant a two-thirds vote would have been required to kill the bill. As it was, the bill got votes from 62% of the reps who were present when the question was called.

Zone can be “tailored” – but only by the abortion facility

Rep. Charlene Takesian (R-Pelham) spoke in favor of the bill, in accordance with her Judiciary Committee vote. She repeated her claim that there’s “a measure of violence” in behaving nonviolently outside abortion facilities. She also praised the committee amendment, accepted by the full House, that changed the bill’s zone to “up to 25 feet.” “This allows facilities to tailor the zone,” she said.

Yes, abortion facilities can tailor the zone. Unfortunately, municipalities and neighbors can’t, under the current language of the bill. Their role is strictly consultative. Before recommending the bill, the Judiciary committee voted against any amendment that would give municipalities or abutters what some reps called “veto power.”

Unanswered questions

Rep. Robert Rowe (R-Amherst) tried to bring reason to bear, saying “The language of the bill is quite simple. Policy and legal issues are not.” He posed four questions to evaluate whether a buffer zone is needed: Does the bill represent a statewide need? Is this being brought forward by a special interest group? Are current state and federal laws adequate to protect rights of abortion-minded women and abortion protesters alike? To what extent can a private company control a public way and neighboring properties?

To answer those questions, said Rowe, more information is needed.  “How many abortion facilities are there? Nobody knows. Where are they? We don’t know. How many official complaints were brought to the police by these facilities? We don’t know. What was the disposition of complaints? We don’t know. Are facilities urban or rural? Are they in multi-tenant buildings? We should have all of that information before we take action on this. There has been limited disclosure.” He reminded his colleagues – at least the ones who remained in the chamber – that the Supreme Court is considering a buffer zone law now. He said he’d support interim study if such a motion were made, to provide time to get more information and await the Court’s decision.

Buffer zone opponent called “bigot,” “woman-killer”

Rep. Rowe noted at the end of his speech that civility has taken a hit. “Some in the majority party have called me a woman-killer because of my position [on SB 319]. A colleague on Judiciary “called me a bigot,” comparing opposition to 319 to the actions of segregationists in Selma.”That is sad. That is wrong.”

A buffer for me but not for thee

Two representatives tried to amend SB 319 so that it would apply to more than just the abortion business. Reps. Dan Itse (R-Fremont) and Warren Groen (R-Rochester) did their best to apply buffer zones fairly, but they were defeated. House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff (D-Penacook) said that such efforts “trivialized” the bill.

Strong statements in a losing cause

I was only present for the first two hours of debate, but I got to hear a few of the thirteen representatives who signed up to speak against the bill and in favor of free speech. They went on the record, despite the rebuff from colleagues who chose to take a walk during debate. These are excerpts, with my apologies to representatives I may have missed.

Rep. Lenette Peterson (R-Merrimack):  “If we accept this, the United States Constitution means nothing. To pass this bill would be to tell citizens their voice has no place in New Hampshire.”

Rep. Jeanine Notter (R-Merrimack): “The Supreme Court [in Hill v. Colorado] said that free speech includes the right to attempt to persuade. This bill hits at the heart of liberty.” She noted that Manchester’s police chief, while mentioned by SB 319 supporters, did not testify on the bill. She also mentioned by name many of the New Hampshire residents who took time off work to testify against the bill at committee hearings.

Rep. Leon Rideout (R-Lancaster): “The reasonable approach is to await this decision” on the Massachusetts buffer zone. “There seems to be a headlong rush to embroil New Hampshire in litigation.”

Not done yet

The Senate must agree with a House amendment before SB 319 can go to Governor Hassan’s desk.