Friday, February 8, 2019

Topless In New Hampshire: Crime Or Gender Discrimination?

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has affirmed three public nudity ordinance violations. 

Defendant Pierro

The following facts are drawn from the trial court’s order on the defendants’ motion to dismiss or are otherwise supported by the record. On May 28, 2016, Pierro went to Endicott Park Beach in Laconia. At the hearing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss, Pierro testified that she “was topless” and was there “to enjoy the beach.” She agreed with defense counsel that she was “performing yoga on the beach.” She stated that she “was violently harassed” by “[s]everal citizens,” but that “out of everybody on the beach, there were only actually a handful that were upset.”

Sergeant Black of the Laconia Police Department testified that, on that same day, he and Officer Callanan responded to the beach because the department had “received several calls about a female . . . doing nude yoga.” Callanan testified that they approached a woman, later identified as Pierro, who was “not wearing any shirt and her breasts, as well as her nipples, were both exposed.” Callanan stated that she “made attempts to speak to” Pierro, but that Pierro “continued to do her yoga poses.” She explained that “after
about a minute or so, [Pierro] looked up and acknowledged that we were, in fact, trying to speak to her.” She testified that they “explained to [Pierro] that the reason [they] were making contact with her was in reference to a Laconia City Ordinance, since her nipples were exposed on the beach in a public place.” Callanan stated that they asked Pierro “multiple times to cover up, to put her bathing suit top back on, or put her shirt back on,” but that Pierro “refused.

Defendants Sinclair and Libbey

In 2015, Sinclair became involved in the “Free the Nipple” movement. Sinclair testified that she was one of the people who “started” the movement in New Hampshire after having her son and realizing “that there was a very big stigma on breastfeeding.” She explained that she believed that breasts, specifically nipples, are “hypersexualize[d]” and “consider[ed] pornographic and taboo,” which she stated results “in that stigma” and “contributes to the low breastfeeding rates that the United States has compared to the rest of the world.” Sinclair told Lilley about the movement, which Lilley then joined. Lilley testified that she is “a feminist” and joined the movement because she “believe[s] in the equality of the male and female.”

On May 31, 2016, Sinclair and Lilley went topless to Weirs Beach in Laconia. While at the beach, they were arrested for violating the ordinance. Sinclair testified that she “purposely engaged in civil disobedience knowing that the City of Laconia has an ordinance against the exposure of the female nipple and areola.” She stated that she was “protesting [Pierro’s] case where she had been arrested a few days prior.” Lilley testified that she was also protesting Pierro’s arrest and that she “announced to the arresting police officer that [she] was acting in a protest and that [she] did not believe that [she] could be arrested for protesting.” She further agreed with the prosecutor that, on that day, she “chose to take it upon [herself] to violate the ordinance to give attention to [her] cause.”

The court majority rejected both Constitutional and state claims raised by the defendants.

LYNN, C.J., and DONOVAN, J., concurred; BASSETT, J., with whom HICKS, J., joined, concurred in part and dissented in part.

We agree with our colleagues in most respects: Laconia’s ordinance does not violate the defendants’ rights to freedom of speech and expression; it falls within the regulatory authority of the City of Laconia; it is not preempted by statute; and it does not violate RSA chapter 354-A. However, we part company with the majority when it rejects the defendants’ equal protection claim. We strongly disagree that rational basis is the lens through which the defendants’ equal protection challenge should be analyzed. Laconia’s ordinance facially classifies on the basis of gender: if a woman and a man wear the exact same clothing on the beach, on Laconia’s main street, or in a backyard “visible to the public,” the woman is engaging in unlawful behavior— but the man is not...

We agree with the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit. Public nudity ordinances such as the ordinances in Chicago and Laconia — i.e., those that use explicit, gendered language to make it unlawful for a female to engage in certain behavior, while the same behavior is lawful for a male — clearly classify by gender. The majority asserts that such reasoning is “flawed” and “deceptively simple.” We fail to see the flaw or deception in our simple reasoning: when a law uses the word “female” to classify between those who
can violate the ordinance — females — and those who cannot — males — it contains a gender-based classification. We freely acknowledge that the question of whether basic physiological differences between the sexes justify disparate treatment of men and women is a more nuanced and complicated question. But classification and justification present different questions.

Respectfully, we find the reasoning of the majority — which obscures the simple threshold question — needlessly convoluted and artificially complex. Indeed, a court upends the safeguards of equal protection if it reasons that, because a law is premised upon physiological or anatomical differences between the sexes, the law does not classify by gender and therefore it need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny. For example, because women have a longer life expectancy than men, by the majority’s reasoning, a hypothetical law that mandates that women work four years longer than men in order to qualify for a pension, or prevents women from retiring until age 70 as opposed to age 66 for men, or reduces a woman’s social security benefits if she retires at the same age as a man, does not classify on the basis of gender. Such a law would be constitutional so long as it was “rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” Boulders, 153 N.H. at 641. Analyzing whether a law comports with equal protection does not require that the court be blind to basic physiological or anatomical differences. In some cases, applying the constitutionally required level of scrutiny, this court might conclude that such differences justify disparate treatment under the law. However, a court subverts the basic guarantee of equal protection if it concludes that, because men and women have physiological or anatomical differences, a law that classifies on the basis of those differences does not trigger strict scrutiny.


A court would no longer say, as a Supreme Court Justice did over 100 years ago, that a woman did not have a right to practice law because “the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. . . . This is the law of the Creator. . . . [T]he rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things . . . .” Bradwell v. The State, 83 U.S. 130, 141-42 (1872) (Bradley, J., concurring). We revisit that bygone era, and thwart the very protections the Equal Rights Amendment was enacted to provide, if we allow stereotypical notions about women’s bodies to alter our analysis of the straightforward question of whether Laconia’s ordinance classifies on the basis of gender. This is precisely why the New Hampshire Constitution requires that legislation which discriminates on the basis of a suspect classification be subject to strict scrutiny.

The law has often been used to perpetuate discrimination based on “public sensibilities” or “common understandings” about individuals on the basis of immutable characteristics — however misinformed or ill-motivated those understandings might be. “One of the most important purposes to be served by the Equal Protection Clause is to ensure that ‘public sensibilities’ grounded in prejudice and unexamined stereotypes do not become enshrined as part of the official policy of government.”

The ordinance does not withstand strict scrutiny

applying the strict scrutiny standard required by Part I, Article 2, we conclude that the State has not carried its burden to prove that its asserted interests are compelling and that Laconia’s ordinance is necessary and narrowly tailored.

...over four decades, we have fashioned an analytical framework which subjects laws that distinguish on the basis of gender to the highest level of constitutional scrutiny: strict scrutiny. See Holbrook, 140 N.H. at 189; Sandra H., 150 N.H. at 637; LeClair, 137 N.H. at 222. However, perhaps mindful of the State’s obvious failure to present evidence sufficient to meet the exacting burden of strict scrutiny in this case, the majority strains to conclude that an ordinance that prohibits women — but not men — from engaging in certain behavior does not discriminate on the basis of sex, but is, in fact, gender-neutral. Such an approach is not in service of our constitutional role: it is an abdication of it.

The Laconia Daily Sun covered the controversy. (Mike Frisch)

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