Women taking their right to go topless to state's high court

CONCORD, N.H. — In a case that pits freedom of expression and equality against public decency, three women are challenging a New Hampshire city ordinance prohibiting public nudity and taking it to the state's highest court.

Heidi Lilley, Kia Sinclair and Ginger Pierro were ticketed in 2016 in Laconia after they went topless at Weirs Beach over Memorial Day weekend. Pierro was doing yoga, while the other two were sunbathing.

Some beachgoers complained and a police officer asked them to cover up. When they refused, they were arrested. A legal motion to dismiss a case against the women was denied so they have appealed it to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case Feb. 1. The women want to the court to dismiss their conviction by invalidating the city's ordinance.

The three women argue there's no state law forbidding female toplessness and that the ordinance is discriminatory since men are allowed to go shirtless. They also contend their constitutional rights to freedom of expression were violated.

"The law in the state of New Hampshire is that it is legal for a woman to go topless so we're trying to get the town of Laconia to recognize and to stay with the state," Lilley said. "The town ordinance, in our opinion, is not constitutional. We're hoping the Supreme Court will see that."

The women are part of the Free the Nipple movement, a global campaign that argues it should be acceptable for women to bare their nipples in public, since men can. Supporters of the campaign also are taking their causes to courts with mixed success.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in October that a public indecency ordinance in Missouri didn't violate the state constitution by allowing men, but not women, to show their nipples. But in February, a U.S. District Court judge blocked the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, from enforcing a law against women going topless, arguing it was based on gender discrimination. The city is appealing.

In New Hampshire, Lilley and another woman first challenged the ban when they were cited for going topless at a Gilford beach in 2015. A judge later dismissed that case but the Legislature took up the debate several months later, with a bill that would have made it a crime for women to expose their breasts or nipples in public.

Supporters of the bill warned that allowing women to go bare breasted at beaches could lead to scenes of topless women at libraries and Little League games. They said they were trying to protect families and children. Opponents said such a ban violates the state constitution.

The measure failed but not before an ugly online dispute in which several male legislators were criticized for sexist remarks, including one who suggested men should be allowed to grab the breast of topless women.

In the Supreme Court case, the women are getting support from the ACLU of New Hampshire, which argues free speech protections applies to both "popular and unpopular forms of expression."

"Here, the Laconia ordinance prevents women from making choices about their state of bodily expression using the full range of options available to their male counterparts," said Gilles Bissonnette, the group's legal director. "This case presents an issue of significant importance concerning the right of women under the New Hampshire constitution to speak freely and the constitutional implications of codified stereotypes related to females' roles and sexuality."

In defending the ordinance, the New Hampshire Attorney General's office argues the ordinance just regulates what they can wear to the beach, not bar them entirely from the beach. It also argues the city has the right to "prevent any disturbances," noting women exposing their nipples would cause "disturbances" where a man without a shirt wouldn't.

For Lilley, who said she's fought for women's rights for decades, the case has come to symbolize more than just women being able to choose their beach attire. It's part of an effort to draw attention to inequality "straight across the board," though she seemed frustrated that women taking off their top was still so controversial.

"It shouldn't be an issue," she said. "It's not an issue if a man takes off his shirt. Why should it be an issue if a woman takes off her shirt?"

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