This entry is about topless beaches, Megan’s Law in California, and a Ventura Co. public defender named Liana Johnsson. But first a major digression:
A few years ago some friends and family members found ourselves perched on an unbelievable rocky beach near the roadside on a gigantic (miles wide) and almost completely deserted clear-water lake in Western Canada. Almost everybody on the beach (mostly women and kids with a scattering of dads) was naked — virtually all beaches in Canada are considered "clothing optional."
A couple of Winnebagos full of conservative-looking middle-age men in classic white golf shirts and sunglasses and their late-adolescent sons pulled off to the side of the road. They spotted us, started making a racket, and began making their way down to the beach I was thinking at best they’re oglers and at worst it’s going to be trouble.
No such thing. They all quietly headed over to the relatively empty side of the beach, shucked their own clothes, swam around for a while, got out, toweled off, hopped back in their ‘Bagos, and headed on down the road.
Now that’s grown-up behavior. I’m sure they enjoyed seeing naked women on the beach but that’s neither why they stopped nor why they stayed. Pretty decent people in a pretty decent place. (Where "decent" means doing the right thing, not trying to make others do the "right" thing.)
Now where was I? Oh yeah, It turns out that in California women convicted for topless sunbathing (indecent exposure) must register as sex offenders under Megan’s law.
A group of lawyers, at Johnsson’s request, has asked the Legislature to make topless sunbathing legal, saying the ban is the last criminal sanction that treats women differently than men.
The new movement has urgency: Because of a December court ruling, Johnsson and other attorneys contend, women convicted of indecent exposure could find themselves listed as sex offenders under Megan’s Law, alongside rapists and child molesters.
"At some point, men’s breasts became liberated and women’s didn’t," Johnsson said Friday. "This is the only thing left that men are legally allowed to do and, for women, they have to register as a sex offender. The real issue is there should be equal protection under the law."
I ought to mention this isn’t a particularly urgent issue:
For its part, the state attorney general’s office said Megan’s Law would apply only if the woman has "lewd intent" — and topless sunbathing is not normally considered lewd. In addition, they said, a misdemeanor conviction for indecent exposure requires only registration under Megan’s Law, not public disclosure on the new government websites.
But neither is the status quo entirely benign:
In an Orange County case last month, a state Court of Appeal ruled that anyone convicted of misdemeanor indecent exposure must be listed as a sex offender under Megan’s Law. The databank recently was placed on the Internet, so people can search it for sex offenders.
The court said including indecent exposure offenders is not cruel and unusual
punishment because Megan’s Law is not technically a "punishment" but simply a regulatory tool. Lawyers in the case said trial judges and prosecutors should have the discretion to decide, but the court took that away.
"Can you imagine the burden on police to now have to track all these people?" asked Carol E. Lavacot, the Orange County public defender who challenged the ruling in the 4th Appellate District. "It’s a way overboard decision."
Other public officials such as parks and recreation officers, legislators, and the Governor’s office point out that citations for public nudity are very rare, that the law distinguishes (appropriately, I think) between "indecent" and "lewd" behavior, and that park rangers are too busy with more important problems to chase down topless sunbathers. But the law as interpreted by the appeals court is the law.
At the risk of irritating possible readers I’m not opposed to Megan’s Law-type legislation but I firmly believe there’s a difference between due diligence and "I’ll have to confiscate that picture of a pocket knife, son" zero tolerance enforcement. The law ought to be clarified and, if necessary, changed.
Finally, of course, there a number of bluenoses oppose any changes.
Randy Thomasson, president of Campaign for Children and Families, called it a "loopy idea" at a time when California needs to strengthen laws against public nudity.
"We already have too many sexual assaults in society. This will fuel that fire, and if the women don’t understand, that’s because they don’t think like a man," Thomasson said.
Maybe they just don’t think like Campaign for Children and Families members.
But [Liana] Johnsson countered the notion that "if you allow topless sunbathing on state beaches … civilization will collapse. I tried to show that we have faced these same fears, like when we gave women the right to vote and enter the armed forces, and we have survived."
I was pleased to discover on that beach in Canada, public toplessness, even casual nudity, isn’t public menace neither to those who are topless nor to random passers by.