OC Vows To Defend Topless Law

OCEAN CITY — Less than a week after a local woman filed suit in U.S. District Court challenging Ocean City’s ordinance prohibiting women to go topless in the same public areas where men go shirtless, resort officials this week announced they were prepared to go to battle over the issue.

Last June, amid a backlash from concerned residents and visitors over the potential for Ocean City to allow women to go topless on its beaches and Boardwalk, for example, the Mayor and Council passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting the practice. The ordinance was passed in response to a request from local resident Chelsea Eline seeking clarification from the town, the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office and ultimately the Maryland Attorney General on the legality of female bare-chestedness in the same areas in which men can be shirtless.

On Jan. 16, Eline and four other named plaintiffs, through noted civil rights attorney Devon Jacob, filed suit in U.S. District Court, challenging the emergency ordinance passed by the Mayor and Council last June. The suit came as no surprise after Eline, then known as Chelsea Covington, retained Jacobs’ service after the town’s ordinance was passed early last summer.

This week, however, Mayor Rick Meehan said in a statement the town was prepared to defend the challenge to its ordinance filed in federal court and would take any legal steps necessary to prevent its beaches and other public areas from becoming acceptable topless areas for females, evoking the town’s oft-repeated family resort image.

“The Mayor and Council firmly believe that Ocean City must continue to be a family resort that does not permit women to be topless on our beaches or other public areas,” the Mayor’s statement reads. “As clearly stated in our emergency ordinance passed in June 2017, there is no constitutional right for an individual to appear in public nude or in a state of nudity. It does not implicate either the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the right to privacy or a protected interest. It lacks any communicated value that might call for First Amendment protection. We will pursue all available legal options to ensure that this remains the case for the benefit of our residents and the millions of families who visit our town each year.”

It remains to be seen if Eline and the other named plaintiffs will prevail in federal court on the female topless issue in what will likely be a protracted legal battle, but there certainly is precedent. Next week, the New Hampshire Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a similar case involving three women arrested last summer for going topless in a beach town.

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.