Toplessness in America: The Next ‘Civil Rights’ Movement?

Talk radio has been abuzz in recent days with discussion about the legality of toplessness in cities across America, as well as the possibility that the issue may become the next emerging “civil rights” movement in the nation.

Some are pointing to an incident that occurred earlier this month in Philadelphia as being one of the motivating factors of the discussion.

As previously reported, on August 10th, Mike Stockwell of Cross Country Evangelism was cited with disorderly conduct after a female heckler exposed her breasts to the open-air preacher in the presence of police. While he was shocked that he was issued the citation instead of the woman, Stockwell was informed that going topless is not illegal in Philadelphia. Police explained that just a few weeks prior, a female protester was walking through the streets without a blouse, yet was not prosecuted.

It is possible that the officers were referring to Philadelphia resident Moira Johnston, who has been at the forefront of what is being called the “topless equality” or “top freedom” movement in America.

Johnston had just written the following about an incident that occurred last month in the city:

“In Philadelphia, I was in a location in Center City on Chestnut St. between 15th and 16th Sts. I was shopping with a shirt on. When I exited a building, I took my shirt off. I was on public property (the sidewalk),” she wrote. “While walking across the street, an officer asked what I was doing and said, ‘Put your shirt on.’ When I said no, he instructed me to put my bags down and put handcuffs on me. Then he took me to a marked police vehicle, where I stayed inside and handcuffed for about a half hour before they finally said I could be released, with no charge.”

Johnston is a 29-year-old yoga instructor, who has been going topless in various cities for a number of years in an effort to gain what she believes is the “right” under the 14th Amendment to be bare-chested just like men. She is reportedly the most active in New York City, where she may regularly walk through the park without any clothing on the upper part of her body. According to reports, she has seen mixed reactions, as some stand in disbelief, some mumble, and some men have even requested to have their picture taken with her.

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Johnston is not the only topless activist in the nation, however. There are efforts in various cities across America to generate what is known as “topless awareness.” One topless activist site notes that the states of Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Oregon, California, New York and Maine are among the most lenient toward toplessness. Asheville, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Columbus, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; New York City; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C. are also noted as being the most tolerant of bare-breasted women.

In fact, in many of these cities, topless awareness marches occur each year on National Go Topless Day.

As previously reported, one grandmother  in Austin, Texas brought her 6-year-old grandson out to watch the 2010 National Go Topless Day parade, stating that he needed to be “exposed to life.”

“He needs to know what’s going on in the world so I thought why not. Bring him and let him know,” she told a local Fox affiliate.

However, the boy was not quite as enthusiastic as his grandmother.

“Girls shouldn’t be … with their shirt off outside. Only boys can do that,” he said.

Protesters at the event disagreed.

“We’re supposed to have freedom to go topless just as men are, otherwise it’s not really an equal right,” stated Michele Pernoud.

“It’s no big deal to go topless here in Austin. It’s legal in Austin. We can do it anytime, but we think it should be legal everywhere,” Caroline Estes chimed in.

At least one woman was spotted going topless at the recent Bele Chere Arts and Music Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, a city that was dubbed by Senator Jim Forester as being a “cesspool of sin.” At one point, a senior citizen attempted to cover a woman walking around bare-chested, but several officers restrained her from covering the woman. Other police officers notified concerned Christians that the act is legal in the state. Christian News Network phoned Governor Beverly Perdue’s office and Asheville City Hall to inquire why such acts were “legal,” but calls were not returned.

Topless advocates outline, however, that one of the reasons that police do not take action against shirtless women is that state or city laws regarding public indecency are often loosely interpreted — and have been so for a long time.

They pointed to a 1998 story out of Columbus, Ohio, where police had “been instructed not to arrest anyone for exposing breasts in public.” The local courts had ruled that “‘breasts are not private parts,’ as far as the state’s public indecency laws are concerned.”

“[W]e’re training officers that breasts are not private parts, and if people want to strut around with their bosoms out, so be it,” outlined Kelly Castle, the legal adviser for the Columbus Police Department.

Reportedly, three women had sued the police department for going topless at the city’s homosexual pride parade and won a sum of $5,000 each.

However, police still remarked that “[i]f it causes a disturbance, if it’s causing a large group to form, or if people are getting out of hand because of it, we do have the right to ask people to leave.”

Similarly, one website advises, “[T]he ultimate decision whether to cite or arrest is left up the police officer. He/she might decide that a generic bylaw or state law banning disorderliness or creating a disturbance or lewd or lascivious behavior might apply to a topless woman.”

For instance, in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth where evangelist Mike Stockwell was cited, lewd behavior is prohibited.

“A person commits a misdemeanor of the third degree if he does any lewd act which he knows is likely to be observed by others who would be affronted or alarmed,” the law outlines.

However, officers decided not to charge the woman under the law, and rather cited Stockwell for disorderly conduct for “drawing a hostile crowd.” According to Stockwell and others with him, police classified the sole woman as a “crowd” as none others had gathered at that time.

Stockwell will be fighting the citation in court, but is concerned that toplessness may be on the rise in the nation.

“That bothers me that we’re going this way in America,” he stated.

According to topless advocates, the push for “equality” began many years ago as the result of the feminist movement.

“[T]he female rights movement in the United States began in Rochester, New York with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a principle pioneer. In her time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was ridiculed for wearing bloomers instead of a floor-length skirt,” one organization writes. “In 1986, seven Rochester women held top-free picnics, resulting in New York’s highest court ruling female top freedom legal in 1992. Now Cathy Stanton, the 63-year old great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is a plaintiff in [a topless] suit.”

However, the movement may not be stopping with toplessness, as some cities across America allow various forms of public nudity, including full nudity. In Brattleboro, Vermont, residents have been shook up in recent years after witnessing various age groups — from teens to the elderly — walking around in the buff on the public streets.

“We’ve received quite a number of complaints on this,” one city official stated, noting that the summer months usually evoke the most complaints.

“This whole town is about peace and about being your own person. So if it is, then why isn’t nudity accepted?” stated hairdresser Heather Birmingham.

Naked bike rides have also become an annual spectacle in major cities across America, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Los Angeles and even St. Louis, Missouri. Organizers advise participants to arrive as unclothed as they dare.

However, some note that toplessness movements and nude events are not exclusive to the United States, as other countries also allow such behavior.

It is likely that the discussion will not go away for some time.

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