With a national spotlight on the New Hampshire House’s debate over a seemingly innocuous honor for the red-tailed hawk, Speaker Shawn Jasper demanded an apology on Friday from the lawmaker who used an abortion reference in front of the children who proposed the measure.
Jasper, a Hudson Republican, called the language inappropriate, especially given the audience: a group of Hampton Falls fourth-graders gathered in the House gallery as lawmakers ridiculed, then rejected their plan to designate the hawk as the state’s official raptor.
“I totally understand one’s right to freedom of speech,” he said, “but we all need to be sensitive to the audience that we are addressing.”
The students traveled from the Lincoln Akerman School to the State House in Concord on March 12 anticipating a straightforward lesson in civics. They had spent weeks working on their bill and hoped to see it win final approval.
Instead, they left with a primer on the often sharp-edged atmosphere in the 400-member House, which had been working on several key pieces of legislation, and also recently rejected a similar effort to name the mastodon the state fossil.
Though several frustrated lawmakers made light of the students’ proposal, one particular statement stood out as a video of the bizarre debate circulated online.
On the floor, Republican Representative Warren Groen said the hawk grasps its prey “with its talons and then uses its razor-sharp beak to rip its victims to shreds, to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.’’
Groen could not be immediately reached for comment, but he has previously chastised critics for being outraged by his comments but not by abortion.
‘‘The gallery is open to the public and there are children in the gallery every day,’’ he told the Associated Press. ‘‘I don’t know if we should limit free speech or limit the attendance in the gallery. It seems either one would be bad for transparency in government.’’
Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, is to visit the elementary school later this month, her staff said Friday.
Hassan hopes the trip will encourage the fourth-graders to “remain engaged in the democratic process,” said spokesman William Hinkle.
“The overall tone was unacceptable for anyone’s legislation, let alone that of fourth-graders,” he said in a statement.
Though Jasper singled out Groen’s statement as inappropriate, he said in a telephone interview that lawmakers have been exasperated by increasing efforts to create official state designations.
“The House has gotten to the point of realizing that we can’t name everything the ‘state something,’ ” he said. Instead, he urged students and teachers to look at the bills being debated, and find ways to get involved with those.
“There is a lot of important legislation going on,” he said.
Donna Sytek, a former Republican House Speaker who served 23 years in the chamber, said she opposes abortion herself, but thought the Planned Parenthood comments were inappropriate for the House floor.
Still, she said she sympathizes with the frustration over symbolic bills and agreed that teachers should focus students on more meaningful legislation.
Sytek said the fate of the hawk bill still holds some lessons about government.
“Just because you ask for it doesn’t mean it will happen. Every bill that’s introduced does not get passed,” she said. “So that’s a learning experience.”
Mark Deblois, principal of the elementary school, said students are indeed taking their legislative defeat as instructive. They now know how hard it can be to pass a bill, and how many ways it can be stopped.
But many of them were confused about why lawmakers were so dismissive.
He said the Planned Parenthood reference went over most of their heads, but other jokes landed painfully.
One representative asked why the state even needed a state raptor, or why it should be the red-tailed hawk, given that the bird appears in many other states. Another chided the proposal by suggesting the state would next be naming an official hot dog.
“I don’t think they realized how ugly politics can be sometimes,” Deblois said. “They can’t figure out why adults who were supposed to be leaders behaved this way.”
Wayne Lesperance, a public policy professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H., said he thinks the lessons of the red-tailed hawk bill are worth learning — just not for fourth-graders.
For instance, he might talk to his students about how any legislation can unexpectedly transform into “something that a person with an agenda can grab and use.”
“It’s easy to explain to someone who’s got a little more experience,” Lesperance said.
“The problem,” he said, “is the age appropriateness.”
Watch the full debate below: