Free the Nipple

Free the nipple

Free the Nipple is a topfreedom campaign created in 2012 during pre-production of a 2014 film of the same name. The campaign highlights the general convention of allowing men to appear topless in public while considering it sexual or indecent for women to do the same, and asserts that this difference is an unjust treatment of women.

The campaign argues that it should be legally and culturally acceptable for women to bare their nipples in public. There are two U.S. states where the mere showing of women’s breasts is illegal: Indiana and Tennessee. Fourteen states and many other cities have laws with ambiguous implications on how much a woman is allowed to expose her body.

In 2012, filmmaker Lina Esco started this campaign in New York City. She created a documentary of herself running through the streets of New York topless. As the documentary was being made, she posted teaser clips with the hashtag #FreeTheNipple. In 2013, Facebook removed these clips from its website for violating its guidelines. In 2014, several celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, Chelsea Handler, Rihanna, and Chrissy Teigen posted photos on social media to show their support of Esco’s initiative.

Two protesters, Tiernan Hebron and UCSD graduate student Anni Ma were arrested for indecent exposure outside of a campaign appearance for Senator Bernie Sanders on March 23, 2016. They appeared topless except for pieces of tape over their nipples, and had the words ‘Free the Nipple,’ ‘Equality,’ and ‘Feel the Bern’ written on their chests. Los Angeles Police officers asked them to cover their breasts, and the two women refused and were arrested. They were held for 25 hours in jail but were not charged with any crime.

After being released, Ma filed a federal lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department. Ma said that her action was not lewd because mammary glands are not sexual organs, but rather have the purpose of breastfeeding children, and said she believed she did not at any point show her ‘genitals’ or ‘private parts.’ Her attorney claims she was never ‘nude’ and that California’s indecent exposure law applies only to genitals, not breasts. Her lawsuit also alleged that her constitutional rights had been violated, that she had been subject to unlawful gender discrimination, and that federal civil rights laws had been violated.

Historically, women have sometimes been arrested or charged with public indecency, disturbing the peace, or lewd behavior for baring their breasts in public, even in jurisdictions where there was no law explicitly prohibiting doing so. In New York state, female toplessness was made legal around 1990, and when a woman was arrested there in 2005 for appearing topless in public, a court ruled in her favor and she later received US$29,000 in damages.

In 2015, the campaign received attention in Iceland after a teenage student activist posted a photo of herself topless and was harassed for doing so. In support of the student and the initiative, Björt Ólafsdóttir, a Member of Parliament, posted a topless photo of herself in solidarity.

Various court cases in the United States have involved the question of whether women may publicly expose female breasts. Two examples are ‘Erie v. Pap’s A.’ and ‘Barnes v. Glen Theatre.’ These involved ordinances that placed restrictions on how women were legally permitted to appear in public, focusing on banning any public exposure of the female breasts. A lawsuit was filed as ‘Free the Nipple v. City of Fort Collins,’ which was an attempt to remove the provision in the municipal code of Fort Collins, Colorado, that prohibits women from revealing their breasts. The federal lawsuit was won at the appellate level. In September 2019, after spending over $300,000, Fort Collins decided to stop defending their ordinance and repeal it. That effectively gave women of all ages the right to go topless wherever men can in the jurisdiction of the 10th Circuit (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma states as well as all counties and cities therein).

Every major social media platform has their own guideline and policy in regards to nudity and revealing nipples. Facebook only allows photos of nipples to be posted when it is ‘in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness, or gender confirmation surgery), or an act of protest.’

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