Worcester State’s Attorney Seeking Attorney General’s Opinion On Topless Women; ‘Equal Protection’ At Root Of Claim

File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — The Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office has requested an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General on the legality of women going topless in the same areas where men are allowed to go shirtless under the Equal Protection Act, an opinion that could have serious repercussions in the resort area.

At the request of Maryland resident Chelsea Covington, Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby has reached out to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office seeking an opinion on the legality of women going topless in the same public areas where men are allowed to go shirtless. Covington, an advocate for female bare-chestedness in public through the TopFreedom initiative, often goes topless in public places in Maryland and other states, including Ocean City.

Covington reached out to the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office seeking an opinion on the legality of women going topless in Maryland in the same public areas where men are allowed to go shirtless. Oglesby, after consulting with the OCPD and Ocean City officials, and after reviewing the existing statutes in Maryland, decided to seek an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.

“As I explained, Chelsea Covington is a female living in a neighboring county who advocates for the ability of females to go topless in public,” the opinion request reads. “She was written to this office as well as the Ocean City Police Department asking for our opinion on the legality of this behavior. Her argument is essentially if men can go shirtless, Equal Protection requires that women be allowed to go topless too.”

Oglesby said this week he researched the existing statutes covering indecent exposure along with disturbing the peace, for example, for a clearer definition of what is allowable.

“Looking at the case law, the language in the commissioners’ manual is a little vague,” he said. “Through my research, I found no case in Maryland that was directly on point, so it was prudent for this office to reach out to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office for an opinion. This was done with the full cooperation of the Ocean City Police Department and the Ocean City municipal government.”

A look at state laws governing women’s rights to go topless in public places appears to be a patchwork of varying degrees of legality. In just three states, Indiana, Tennessee and Utah, is female toplessness completely illegal. In the vast majority of the states, there is some degree of topless freedom, however, local ordinances in many cases supersede state law. In several other states, including Maryland and Delaware, the laws are considered ambiguous and in need of clarification.

Oglesby said on Monday because of Covington’s request for an opinion, he has deferred to the Attorney General’s Office after conferring with the OCPD and town officials. Clearly, it’s an opinion worth keeping an eye on in a resort area with beaches, the Boardwalk and countless other public places.

“Mrs. Covington reached out to the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) as well as this office,” he said. “She wanted to know if her anticipated behavior would be considered criminal. What is interesting about this is Worcester County becomes part of the focus because we have beaches. There are obvious ramifications for the Town of Ocean City. Again, there is no case law in Maryland directly on point. Everyone who participated in the discussion has the best interest of the town at heart. Equal protection prohibits treating men and women differently.”

Because there appears to be conflicting or contrary language in the state law in Maryland, Oglesby is seeking an opinion on the issue from the Attorney General’s Office. However, the District Court in Maryland has already tightened up the language regarding women’s rights to go topless in public places.

“The one thing we looked at was the language in the commissioners’ manual,” he said. “We made the District Court aware the language in the manual is a little vague and already they’ve changed the language. That was done after I requested an opinion from the Attorney General. We’re now waiting for the Attorney General to issue an opinion, then I’ll meet again with the OCPD and town officials on where we go from there.”

The Maryland statute on indecent exposure defines it as a common law crime and covers the deliberate exposure of one’s private parts, but does not specifically mention female breasts.

“The common law crime of indecent exposure refers to the deliberate exposure of one’s private parts,” the section of the code regarding indecent exposure reads. “This can occur in two ways, in a public place with members of the public present, or deliberately to an unconsenting victim, as in what is commonly called a ‘flasher.’ In order for probable cause to be found for indecent exposure in a public place, there should be same factual indication that members of the public were within sight of the act. In order for probable cause to be found for indecent exposure to a named victim, the facts must indicate a deliberate act of exposure done with the intent that an unconsenting victim would see.”

While the commissioners’ manual indicates the deliberate exposure of one’s private parts is considered the crime of indecent exposure, it does not include any definitions of what are considered “private parts.” Of course, many likely consider female breasts as private parts that should be covered in public, but there does appear to a double standard in terms of gender equality.

Covington certainly believes so and is part of a growing campaign to increase awareness and eliminate the double standard under the Equal Protection Act. In her blog Breasts Are Healthy, Covington relates stories of her efforts in other states. In one blog entry, she reports on sunbathing topless in Ocean City on a crowded summer beach and the relative apathy with which the public reacted.

“I’m still making glacially slow progress talking to legal authorities in Maryland, but progress,” her blog entry from July reads. “I think the resort town officials are stalling to get through this beach season before talking to me in a meaningful way. In the meantime, I’ve been sunbathing in Ocean City and other bay beaches, gardening in the yard and yesterday enjoyed a group outing with some friends at a local beach.”

In a blog entry from earlier this month, Covington explains women’s freedom to go topless in the same public areas where men can go shirtless will require social change as well as legal change. Admittedly, the change will be slow in coming.

“Normalizing female bare-chestedness means reducing the psychological and emotional reaction people have when seeing the female breast,” she said. “My life goal for topfreedom is to normalize bare-chestedness to the point where women can comfortably go bare-chested at family picnics and pool parties as easily as men if they so choose. Realistically, that is probably decades away in places and will be generational process. All normalization is. Bare-chested men created a stir at first too, but as people became accustomed to seeing the male chest, its effect has fallen to nil.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.