On Saturday, the Ocean City Council in Maryland voted unanimously to approve an emergency ordinance banning public nudity. The emergency ordinance was approved after the Ocean City Council became concerned the city’s family friendly beach would become a destination for topless sunbathers this summer.
The Miami Herald reported that the mayor of Ocean City, Rick Meehan, said on his Facebook page after the city council approved the emergency ordinance, that the city would not allow women to go topless on the beach there. Women, he added in the post, would also not be allowed to go topless “on any public property within city limits.”
Topless sunbathing has never been permitted on the Ocean City beach, though the legality of it became a subject of doubt after a beachgoer filed a legal challenge to the law, arguing if men can go topless, women should have the same right. Ocean City authorities, for a short period of time, told the beach patrol not to “confront” women who chose to go topless at the beach, or request for them “to cover up.”
The passing of the emergency ordinance has made going nude in public “a municipal infraction.” Going topless in public in Ocean City, for women, can now result in a fine of $1,000. The ordinance will be enforced “by the local beach patrol.”
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office has not yet ruled on if topless public sunbathing is in violation of “the state’s indecent-exposure laws.” Ocean City’s emergency ordinance states that individuals do not have a “constitutional right” to be nude or appear “in a state of nudity” in public.
The emergency ordinance prohibiting public nudity and topless sunbathing mentioned that an individual’s “personal right” to be nude “becomes subject to government interest and regulation” whenever an individual is in a public place, like a city beach. The emergency ordinance will remain in effect at least until the state’s attorney general delivers a formal opinion on what constitutes “public indecency” in Maryland.
Chelsea Covington, 29, who is an advocate for “equality under the law,” believes that women should be permitted to be topless at the Ocean City beach. However, Maryland law is not entirely clear if going topless on beaches or in other public places is “expressly prohibited.”
According to the Baltimore Sun, the emergency ordinance passed unanimously states that “the equal protection clause” in the Constitution does not mean that if things are different, like in regards to “physiological differences between men and women,” they should “be treated the same in law.” The emergency ordinance presents the argument that the government does not pretend that there are no physiological differences between men and women.
Ocean City is a popular tourist destination for families who want to go the beach there, according to a spokeswoman for the city, Jessica Waters. Speaking for the mayor and city council, Waters said that they take seriously “the responsibility of providing an atmosphere where” families can feel it is safe to bring their children to the beach without worrying that they might get exposed to seeing topless females.
Mayor Rick Meehan said it will not be the responsibility of the lifeguards at Ocean City beach to enforce the prohibition against public nudity. He stated that “the safety of our swimmers is their first priority.” The Beach Patrol and beachgoers who witness public nudity will notify the police, and they will then call the police to enforce the ordinance.
Maryland’s criminal code referring to indecent exposure might not be referring to women who choose to go topless. She argued in court that common law regarding the definition of indecent exposure “typically references the display of genitals,” rather than directly mentioning breasts.
The Ocean City Mayor Meehan said he and the City Council of Ocean City respect “Covington’s desire to express what rights she believes she may have,” but he added that “Ocean City is a family resort.” He said he and the City Council will do whatever they can “to also protect the rights of those families that visit us each year.”
Covington wrote her legal argument that women are allowed to be topless at beaches in Maryland, as well as other public places, after she asked city officials and the police of Ocean City approximately two years ago to provide “clarity and training” that would permit women to go topless when they sunbathe without undergoing any legal consequences. She said that there needed to be “some official declaration” that would let women know that sunbathing topless was legally allowed in Maryland, and also to let the police know that women going topless at Ocean City beach was not illegal.
Such an official declaration would ensure people would not get harassed for sunbathing topless. It would also prevent the police from making “false arrests,” and giving people “false fines.”
The office of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) was asked by Beau Oglesby, the Worcester County state’s attorney, to write a formal opinion in order to clarify what the law in Maryland was, in regards to indecent exposure. On Thursday, spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General, Raquel Coombs, said that Frosh’s office would be drafting a formal opinion to clarify the law. She said she expected for “it to be released soon.”
At least until the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh drafts a formal opinion clarifying Maryland’s law regarding what constitutes public indecency, the emergency ordinance voted on and passed unanimously by the Ocean City Council will continue to prohibit public nudity at the beach in Ocean City. For now, sunbathing topless is prohibited at the beach, and violators are subject to fines of $1,000.
By John Samuels