Trouble in Tranquility

FOR DOWNLOAD MORE GALLERY A 68 year-old man's decision to vacation in Brattleboro, Vermont, which included a nude appearance at the town's July 6 Gallery Walk, might be the catalyst for the Selectboard to begin to consider an ordinance against certain types of nudity in public.

All the misconceptions about nudism are likely to come into play during this process. Already, Selectboard Vice Chairman Dick DeGray is assuming the naked man was up to no good.
"I couldn't believe this was happening in my community," said DeGray, calling the man's nudity "exhibitionism."

He asked the Selectboard to enact an emergency ordinance while it takes time to draft an anti-nudity law for the town.

Selectboard member Rich Garant asked DeGray what the man did to cause him to call it exhibitionism.

"I certainly thought it was exhibitionism," said DeGray. "This person wasn't doing anything other than trying to be a spectacle." Why else would the man come to town during the one time in the month when the streets are packed with gallery strollers, he asked.

According to Wikipedia, "exhibitionism" generally involves a sexual thrill. There is no evidence that the man did anything more than walk down the street nude - there are no reports that the man was aroused or that his intent was to arouse others. What he did cannot be labeled as flashing or streaking, although he did appear to be alone in his nakedness, so that does make his behavior outside the collective norm, so it is bound to raise suspicion; however, it is patently unfair to label the man as an exhibitionist without some hard evidence that his intent was anything more than to exercise his nude freedom under the existing laws.

But even if the man was an "exhibitionist", he cannot be arrested because that specific behavior is not defined as being "lewd and lascivious". At least one Selectboard member is reluctant to begin to legally define nudity.
"I've never been in favor of an (anti-nudity) ordinance," said Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis. "It goes against some of the things that Brattleboro is known for."

She said being nude can be considered a form of freedom of expression, adding the comments she has received tended toward "others love it that we have naked people in Brattleboro."

"I don't like an ordinance that restricts freedoms," she said.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag says that she has received "30 comments" on the issue, presumably not all complaints, and certainly a minority number in a town of 8289 (2000 census).
"I see it as trying to balance people's rights," said Sondag. "Does the nudity begin to infringe on other people's rights?" If it is infringement, she said, "then it is upsetting the tranquility of the community."

Perhaps the 68 year-old man read the essay "The Right Not to be Offended" and he assumed that his right to be nude trumped the rights of others. To assume that any "in your face" behavior is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment is downright foolish - local governments pass ordinances against offensive behavior all the time. Where I live you cannot run loud yard machinery (including lawnmowers) on Sundays due to noise restrictions, you cannot smoke in restaurants and bars, you must scoop your dog's poop, and you cannot walk down the street without pants. The majority rules, like it or not.

Brattleboro has to decide if a few minor incidents and a handful of noisemakers is sufficient to warrant a change in the laws. As I've stated many times before, politicians tend to err on the side of caution - there is more political danger in condoning nudity than prohibiting it. Since the arrest of a man for lewd behavior in Brattleboro a couple of months ago, people have stopped appearing nude in public, and the gallery walker is the only other reported incident. It looks like the town is one incident away from enacting an anti-nudity ordinance.

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