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What's Vermont Law on Baring All? Inconsistent

Local Matters


Published August 30, 2006 at 2:40 p.m.

BURLINGTON - Maybe because late August is a notoriously slow time in newsrooms, media outlets in India and Australia, along with The Washington Post and The Times of London, have recently run stories on public nudity in Vermont.

The cynosure of this journalistic voyeurism is a parking lot in downtown Brattleboro. There, a smattering of young locals, mostly males, has been disrobing on warm afternoons and evenings, drawing scrutiny not only from reporters but from passersby as well.

This literal variation on the teen theme of hanging out has prompted a few demands for action to prohibit such perceived impropriety. Brattleboro's select board may soon debate a proposal to ban public nudity in the state's seventh-most-populous community.

A local initiative would be required, because Vermont state law is silent on the subject of simply going unclothed in public view. Most other states are not nearly so tolerant. But it is illegal in Vermont - a felony, in fact - to engage in "lewd and lascivious conduct," which can be defined as public nudity with an explicitly sexual intent.

Burlington's ordinances make the same distinction.

"Flashing," for example, is not permitted, says Deputy Police Chief Mike Shirling. "Specifically, drawing attention to the genitals - you can be arrested for doing that," he points out. If the act does not occur in front of a child's eyes, it's a misdemeanor punishable by up to 2 years in jail. A flasher exposing himself in the presence of a minor could be convicted of a felony charge carrying a maximum term of 5 years, Shirling notes.

Public nudity involving touching for the purpose of arousal - either solo or with another - is also against local law. "We do get some of those cases," Shirling says.

Simple public nudity is entirely within the law, however - except in the city's parks. In other words, unclad window-shopping on Church Street carries no penalties, while baring it all at North Beach can result in a $50 fine.

But topless and/or bottomless park users are a rare sight in Burlington. "I can't remember the last time it happened," says Shirling, who's been on the force for 15 years.

The police do receive a few complaints in response to the annual nude bike ride through the city's streets. But the upset has not been intense enough to lead the city council to consider a change in Burlington's nudity ordinance, Shirling says.

A few localities around the state have banned public undress in response to residents' outrage over skinnydipping. Wilmington took such a step four years ago, but outrage on the part of naturalists and civil libertarians led to a referendum in which the anti-nudity ordinance was stripped away five months later.