Topless in Idaho

March is a cold month to bare breasts, but northern Idaho women can be topfree thanks to a recent court ruling. On November 30, 1998, Second District Judge John Stegner in Moscow, Idaho, dismissed indecent exposure charges against Lori Graves, Natalie Shapiro, and Stacy Temple.

The charges originated from last summer, when the trio was arrested in downtown Moscow for baring their breasts. On a 90 degree day in July, the three women walked through Moscow with five male friends who had their shirts off. Tired of wearing their shirts in the sweltering heat, the women removed them also.

Seconds later, a police car pulled up. Two police officers asked the women to put their shirts on. When asked if the men had to put their shirts on as well, the officers said no. “When pressed for a reason why, he said ‘it’s not normal behavior for ladies to go topless in society,’” said Graves. “I responded by saying ’100 years ago, it wasn’t normal behavior for ladies to vote.’ He then said ‘you’re distracting people and children might see!’ He didn’t get it.”

The officers decided to charge the women with breaking Section 1-16 of the Moscow City Ordinance, Indecent Exposure, which stated that “no person shall willfully expose his or her person or the private parts thereof in any place where there are other persons likely to be offended or annoyed thereby.”

The officers, when asked about men’s private parts, responded with “men’s parts are public, women’s parts are private.” “It was clear to us that the law was non-gender specific and ambiguous, yet the officers chose to selectively interpret it,” noted Temple.

Finally, the women were arrested, taken to the local jail-still topless-and arraigned and released, pleading not guilty. The judge set a $115 fine if the women were found guilty.

The trio immediately enlisted the help of Moscow attorney James Siebe. Their defense was that the law was vague and violated the 14th Amendment to the US. Constitution because it violated women’s right to equal protection under the law.

The judge agreed, dismissing the charges and ruling that the term “private parts” did not include the female breast and that the term “your person” was unconstitutionally vague and ambiguous.

According to the Lewiston Morning Tribune, the prosecutor has already drafted a new ordinance that would prohibit “pubescent female breasts below the top of the areola” in public, but an exception would be made for breast-feeding. It is unknown if or when the Moscow City Council will decide on it.

It was once illegal for men to be topfree. That all changed following a 1930s movie in which Clark Gable removed his shirt. Soon men were removing their shirts in public, and were arrested. Judges started throwing out the cases, recognizing the inherent right of men to be topless. That’s what we need to do to change a law. We need to challenge unjust laws by breaking them. That generates attention and controversy and makes people question why the law exists in the first place.