BALTIMORE (CN) — Three years after Ocean City was named one of Maryland’s most dangerous places to live, lawmakers there outlawed women going topless. Five women now say in a federal complaint that the “emergency ordinance” is sexist and unconstitutional.
The Baltimore firm Downs Collins brought Tuesday’s lawsuit with Jacob Litigation of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania — representing outspoken Maryland blogger Chelsea Eline and four other women who say they want to bear their bare chests at the popular vacation spot without fear of incarceration.
The women call out Ocean City’s law as contributing to body shaming and other harmful attitudes that “give rise to victim blaming, rape culture and bullying.”
“Studies show children are not harmed by seeing female breasts,” the Jan. 16 complaint states. “Likewise, any claim that Ocean City might suffer financially if women are treated equally to men is not based in reality. Many other thriving tourist destinations, resorts and cities in the United States allow women to go bare-chested. Regardless, financial losses – real or perceived – do not justify violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Ocean City councilmen adopted the ban this past June, writing in the text of the ordinance itself that the government has a legitimate interest in “protecting the public sensibilities … based on an indisputable difference between the sexes.”
“Further, a prohibition against females baring their breasts in public, although not offensive to everyone, is still seen by society as unpalatable,” the ordinance states.
Calling out this rhetoric as discriminatory, Eline and the other women note in Tuesday’s complaint that “the gender classification does not further an important government interest, but rather codifies longstanding discriminatory and sexist ideology in which women are viewed as inherently sexual objects without the agency to decide when they are sexual and when they are not.”
City officials did not respond to several requests for comment.
About five pages of Tuesday’s complaint detail the history of “institutionalized discrimination against women” and American nudity laws.
Though it is now considered normal to see men bare-chested in public, the complaint notes that this was illegal too until 1936.
“In that year, Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in a movie, which prompted 42 men to stage a protest in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to assert their right to be bare-chested in public,” the complaint states. “They were arrested, and each fined $2.00. That same year, men in Westchester, New York, fought for the right to be bare-chested in public, and won. Over the next several years, men across the country fought for, and won, the right to appear bare-chested in public.”
The complaint also recites precedent that the plaintiffs say assures their victory, most notably several legal victories in Missouri and Colorado for local chapters of the group Free the Nipple.
Ocean City officials are quoted in the complaint as defending their town’s image as a family resort and not a “topless beach.”
“We want our lifeguards to have their eyes on the ocean, as the safety of our swimmers is their first priority,” the city said in June on its website. “Our police department, on the other hand, will respond to calls from the Beach Patrol and complaints from our beach patrons, should any activity of toplessness occur. We have received dozens of phone calls, read thousands of comments and answered numerous emails from our residents and visitors expressing their concerns. We assure you we share those concerns and intend to do whatever is necessary to prevent this from happening on our beach, or in any public area in Ocean City.”
In the ordinance, the town denies that anyone has a constitutional right “to appear in public nude or in a state of nudity.”
“One does not have right to impose one’s lifestyle on others who have an equal right to be left alone,” the ordinance states.
Mayor Rick Meehan has been quoted as saying that the collective rights of the countless visitors to the resort outweigh individual rights on the issue of toplessness. Several of his statements call out plaintiff Eline by the pseudonym Chelsea Covington, which she used to communicate with officials.
Violations of the law may result in a $1,000 fine and arrest. Eline and the other women want an injunction and for the law to be struck down.
They are represented by Jason Downs and Devon Jacob.