Ohio Community Festival Fights for Topless Attendees

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – A festival in Ohio filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s enforcement of a liquor law prohibiting exposed nipples and areolas in places where alcohol is served, claiming those attending the festival have a right to go topless.

The Community Festival, known locally as ComFest, claims the Ohio Division of Liquor Control and the investigative unit of the Ohio Department of Public Safety threatened to close down all beer and liquor sales if any topless female attendees are observed by their agents at ComFest, unless festival staff forces these women to cover their breasts or leave.

This year’s ComFest will be held this upcoming weekend, June 23-25, at Goodale Park in Columbus.

“For years, male and female festival-goers have appeared topless at ComFest. ComFest is virtually certain that male and female festival-goers will appear topless at the 2017 festival,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Columbus federal court.

“ComFest believes that female festival-goers have the constitutional and personal right to appear topless at Goodale Park during operating hours. ComFest understands that female festival-goers who appear topless have both personal and political reasons for exposing their breasts,” the complaint states. “ComFest understands that personal reasons for exposing breasts include respite from heat and humidity.  ComFest believes that male festival-goers who appear topless share such personal reasons.”

Beyond that, the festival also believes that women expose their breasts for political reasons, including “securing equality with male festival goers; rejecting sexualizing and objectifying women; avoiding blaming women, rather than men, for sexual reactions to female nudity or accusing rape or sexual assault female victims of ‘asking for it’; and countering the body-shaming that breast should be of a particular size and shape.”

“ComFest knows that female festival-goers who appear topless view the festival as a safe place to expose their breasts without fear of being verbally abused, groped or sexually assaulted and they attempt to desexualize nudity by engaging in ordinary activities in the same way topless male festival-goers do,” the lawsuit states.

According to the complaint, the festival implements a commitment to alternative lifestyles, equal rights and individual freedom, and represents “political beliefs that both reject as sexist stereotypical views of proper female apparel and patriarchal notions of ownership over females’ bodies.”

The festival began in 1972 as a place for community organizations to come together and celebrate diversity.

ComFest says a large portion of its operating expenses come from the sale of beer and wine. It has operated at a loss for the last two years, according to the complaint, as it doesn’t accept large corporate donations or sponsorship.

Beer and wine sales are handled by volunteers and all tips are donated to homeless charities and food banks, the festival says.

When it does make money, “Comfest uses part of its festival income to make monetary grants consistent with its political bent,” the complaint states.

The festival says it is known for its atmosphere of equality and freedom, and ”has not received notable complaints about other festival-goers observing topless female festival goers.”

“ComFest believes that communicating to female festival-goers that they may not appear topless or to male and female festival-goers that female breasts must be modestly covered and enforcing that communication flagrantly violates [its] statement of principles and flouts the ‘Rise Up’ theme of the 2017 festival,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit states that in 2016, after years of issuing the festival liquor permits, the Ohio Division of Liquor Control issued a citation to ComFest for knowingly allowing a female attendee to expose her bare breasts. The case is still pending before the Ohio Liquor Control Commission.

On June 8, ComFest volunteers met with Liquor Control agents to discuss its license to sell beer and wine at this year’s festival.

Nudity at the festival was discussed, with volunteers questioning the difference between “Ohio public indecency, which permits the exposure of female breasts, and Liquor Control regulations, which prohibit such exposure.”

When pressed as to what was acceptable in public places, according to the complaint, an agent emphatically stated, “Women cannot expose bare breasts period. Men cannot expose anything from the waist down. If you can see it, no go.”

The lawsuit says agents told volunteers that if they see someone nude and do nothing, their liquor license could be pulled.

ComFest brought its suit against John Born, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety; Jim Canepa, interim superintendent of the Ohio Division of Liquor Control; and Sarah W. Creedon, executive director of the Ohio Liquor Control Commission.

The festival’s request for a temporary restraining order was granted this week, according to local news reports, halting any action by Liquor Control to enforce the regulation at issue during this year’s festival.

ComFest has also asked the court to declare the regulation unconstitutional for female festival-goers, and for a preliminary and permanent injunction barring enforcement of the regulation, as well as costs and attorney’s fees.

The festival is represented by Edward Forman of Marshall and Forman and Edward Hastie of Hastie Legal, both located in Columbus.

The defendants could not be reached for comment.

ComFest is not the only entity to sue recently over nipples in pubic.

The Free the Nipple Movement, which began in 2014 with Lina Esco’s film of the same name, uses grassroots campaigns and social media to fight discriminatory laws about breasts. It filed a lawsuit last summer against Fort Collins, Colo., for criminalizing women, but not men, who expose their nipples in public.

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