Local plaintiffs fight for their right to semi-nudity.
When you think of Ocean City, Maryland, what comes to mind? Maybe family-friendly activities, the #1 boardwalk in the country ... and, if you've been keeping up with local news, the Topless Beach Saga.
You heard right—since 2016, Ocean City has been locked in a battle over whether women have the right to go topless on public beaches. It all started when Eastern Shore resident (and, eventually, one of five plaintiffs), Chelsea Eline, contacted beach patrol over issues of "top freedom," which Delmarva Now explains is "the belief that women should be able to appear topless in public, as do men."
Eline, who originally contacted beach patrol under the pseudonym "Chelsea Covington" and has been quoted as such, said, "Ocean City seems to feel that the Constitution does not apply to them, but a high court will decide." As Delmarva Now pointed out, "Covington [sic] noted that federal courts elsewhere in the country have ruled against similar laws," and Article 46 of the Maryland Constitution does state that the law cannot give preferential treatment on the basis of sex or gender.
In June 2017, the head of the beach patrol instructed lifeguards to "no longer approach and scold women who are topless." After residents mistook this to mean toplessness would now be allowed on Ocean City beaches, Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan said the City Council received “hundreds of calls and emails from residents and visitors, expressing their concerns over this issue.”
The Ocean City City Council held an emergency session to pass a new ordinance, which stated, in no uncertain terms, that “there is no constitutional right for an individual to appear in public nude or in a state of nudity...Whatever personal right one has to be nude or in a state of nudity, that right becomes subject to government interest and regulation when one seeks to exercise it in public.” The ordinance goes on to state that anyone showing "the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering" would be in violation of law and subject to a fine of up to $1,000. (The ordinance would have "no bearing on breastfeeding.")
In response to the new city ordinance, Eline and four other women sued Ocean City and several officials in 2018. In April of 2020, a federal judge ruled in favor of Ocean City, noting that "the Supreme Court has said physical differences between men and women provide a constitutionally sound basis for laws that treat them differently."
Fox 5 reported that the judge also said that "the ban relates to the important government objective of protecting public sensibilities from nude displays of areas on the body traditionally viewed as erogenous zones."
In what may or may not be the last chapter of the saga, the Washington Post reports that "the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit is reviewing last year's decision to uphold Ocean City's ban." Last Wednesday, Fox 5 reported, "three judges heard oral arguments in the case. Ocean City's attorney also spoke at Wednesday's hearing."
Judges varied on personal opinions of the morality of going topless at the beach, with Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory pointing out that "Public sensibilities and legal standards have changed over time." Regardless, argued Ocean City’s attorney, Bruce F. Bright, it is "the role of elected officials to “take the temperature of the public” and to legislate on that basis." The Washington Post reported that "Ocean City officials have defended the ordinance, telling the court that it is necessary to maintain the town’s family-friendly character and that it reflects public sentiment."
We're curious to see what the results of the Ocean City saga are—what do you think about the ban? Can a town still be family-friendly and permit some nudity at the beach? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!