AG's office says Ocean City can ask topless women to cover up

Ocean City officials can legally ask topless women to cover up, the Maryland attorney general's office concluded in a letter this week.

An advocate for "normalizing female bare-chestedness" had previously asked the attorney general to weigh in on the matter, and there was no response after about a year. The beach resort town also asked for the office's opinion on the matter.

Earlier this month, Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin issued a memo instructing lifeguards not to approach women who are sunbathing topless on the beach, but instead to document it.

Some misinterpreted Arbin's memo as an endorsement of female toplessness in Ocean City. Ocean City officials responded by passing an emergency measure June 10 to prohibit toplessness.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said the town is happy with the advisory letter, dated Wednesday, from the attorney general's office.

"It does support our position and hopefully it'll put this issue to rest and allow us to move forward," Meehan said. "Our position has always been the same: We are not a topless beach, we do not intend to become a topless beach."

Worcester County States Attorney Beau Oglesby said in a statement he agreed with the conclusion from the attorney general.

"The Office of the Attorney General has provided me with a well-reasoned and comprehensive analysis of this legal question," Oglesby said. "This issue has statewide implications and unfortunately has created division and unrest in our community during our busiest time of the year. Individuals on both sides hold passionate and sincere beliefs in their positions."

The advisory letter, which was signed by two attorneys in the attorney general's office and is not an opinion of Attorney General Brian Frosh, cites numerous court precedents finding that men and women have different bodies and that asking women not to bare their breasts in public does not violate the Constitution.

However, the attorneys noted that public opinion on matters of decency can change quickly and be subject to a different legal interpretation in the future.

"And when public sensibilities begin to change, they can change quickly," said the letter, which was signed by Sandra Benson Brantley and Adam D. Snyder. "We also recognize that what is seen as 'indecent' can depend on context. Law enforcement officials may consider that context when exercising their enforcement discretion and thus are best positioned to ensure that Maryland's indecency laws are applied no more broadly than public sensibilities require."

The letter specified that the advice did not apply to women who are breast-feeding women, who are protected under state law.

cwells@baltsun.com

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