The following types of indecent exposure are illegal at the state level in New Hampshire:
- The New Hampshire state criminal code prohibits sex acts and uncovered genitalia in public. The law is specifically concerned with lewd actions that are intentionally offensive.
- Offenses are a misdemeanor unless they’re knowingly committed in the presence of a child under age 16, in which case felony charges can be pressed.
- New Hampshire’s public indecency statute does not include a ban on females baring their breasts publicly.
- New Hampshire’s RSA 132:10-d, enacted in 1999, makes clear that “breast-feeding a child does not constitute an act of indecent exposure and to restrict or limit the right of a mother to breast-feed her child is discriminatory.”
Town bans on female toplessness
State courts have gone back and forth over whether New Hampshire’s cities and towns have the power to set stricter standards for public indecency.
- In 2015, a district court judge overturned a Gilford town ordinance banning female toplessness, finding that New Hampshire towns are not granted jurisdiction over topless sunbathing by the state Legislature.
- Soon after, a New Hampshire House bill banning female toplessness on the state level was introduced, but it was unanimously voted down because many in the Legislature believed it would be seen as discriminatory against women.
- In November of 2016, the same district court judge that struck down Gilford’s topless ban upheld a similar one in Laconia.
Prosecutors persuaded the judge in the Laconia case by pointing to a state law allowing towns:
“To restrain and punish vagrants, mendicants, street beggars, strolling musicians, and common prostitutes, and all kinds of immoral and obscene conduct, and to regulate the times and places of bathing and swimming in the canals, rivers and other waters of the city, and the clothing to be worn by bathers and swimmers.”
The attorney for the women was state Rep. Dan Hynes. He argued that lawmakers didn’t intend for the statute—mentioning vagrants and prostitutes—to be used to stop women from taking their shirts off in public.
In July 2017, the New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-NH) filed a brief arguing that Laconia’s ordinance violates New Hampshire’s Equal Rights Amendment. They maintain that a woman going topless can be a form of speech protected by the state and federal constitutions, often expressing “pro-body” and political messages.
There are no nation-wide federal laws defining indecent exposure. However, some forms of nudity have been deemed “expressive” and therefore protected free speech under the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
Law in other states
States define “public indecency” in a variety of ways.
- Vermont does not specifically outlaw public nudity on the state level. Instead, it bans “open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior.” This means that Vermonters may be totally nude in public so long as that nudity is not purposefully intended to scandalize or arouse people.
- Massachusetts stipulates that a person can only be charged with “indecent exposure” if it can be proven that one or more persons were offended by the act.
- Tennessee, on the other hand, is among a minority of states that explicitly outlaw “the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of the areola” at the state level.
“NH towns should have the right to pass their own indecent exposure laws.”
- Towns should have the right to decide for themselves what is socially acceptable behavior in their communities.
- New Hampshire’s beaches attract tourists from all over the world— controversial clothing policies could keep people from coming to the beach, which could impact town revenues.
- Women going topless in public could become the subjects of sexual harassment.
- The state’s current definition of “indecent exposure” is too lenient and could result in children being exposed to inappropriate and troubling levels of public nudity.
“NH towns should not have the right to pass their own indecent exposure laws.”
- Bans on female toplessness are discriminatory, allowing men to exposure their chests but imposing more restrictive standards on women.
- A patchwork of different town rules regarding indecent exposure would lead to confusion, so these policies are best left to the state to decide.
- Removing the stigma around public toplessness will promote self-confidence and help dismantle “rape culture” attitudes.
- No one is physically harmed when a woman exposes her breasts in public— we should not allow towns to create “victimless crimes.”
- Enforcing strict indecent exposure laws would waste town law enforcement resources that could be better used combatting more serious problems.