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The organizer of a June 12 naked bike ride protest is heading to federal court on a mission to overturn San Diego’s anti-nudity ordinance, saying it doesn’t protect her right to engage in free speech by going without clothes in public.
“We think it’s too broad and sweeps all nudity into one big category,” said attorney Mitch Wallis, who plans to file a request for an injunction Wednesday on behalf of organizer Sarah Bush. She and others want to use the ride — and the nudity — to promote biking and oppose the country’s dependence on oil.
The legal brief, which says the nudity ordinance violates the First Amendment, puts Bush’s case this way: “The Plaintiff Is Entitled To Strip Naked, Paint Her Body With Political Slogans and Protest Important Public Issues.”
The city isn’t cooperating, and appears ready to crack down on any bicyclists who ride naked (or, in the case of women, topless) on the World Naked Bike Ride’s 10-mile route through Hillcrest and downtown.
“The city’s position is that the law will be enforced,” said Gina Coburn, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, in an e-mail. “The law does not prohibit bike riding. It does prohibit public nudity.”
San Diego’s World Naked Bike Ride is one of more than 25 nude protest rides scheduled around the world on June 12. In recent years, the rides have attracted crowds of dozens or hundreds in places like London, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle. Some of the bike-riding protesters wear clothes, while others have nothing on but shoes and sunscreen.
“It was founded as a protest against oil dependency and a celebration of the power and beauty of the human body, showing you what you can do with less,” said Daniel Johnson, who helped organize the first World Naked Bike Ride events in 2004 in several American and Canadian cities.
Bush, a 20-year-old Grossmont College student, has been publicizing San Diego’s World Naked Bike Ride online and through fliers. She became interested in the events after reading about the World Naked Bike Ride in a Cosmopolitan article on 50 Fun Things to Do Naked and attended an event in the Bay Area with a friend.
“I was really was inspired,” she said, “but realized how ridiculous it was it to drive to San Francisco to do a protest against oil dependency.” So she decided to organize a ride here.
The purpose of the event is to show how vulnerable bicyclists are, she said.
“There’s definitely a shock value to it,” she said, “and you grab people’s attention.”
Bush is aware that the bike rides attract photographers who have posted thousands of photos and videos of naked participants online, and she’s not happy about the prospect of observers with sleazy motivations. But she said, “I don’t know how to get around it.”
Wallis, an attorney who’s working for Bush at no cost in order to support her cause, said he met with representatives of the city in April to discuss the event.
The city, he said, refused to budge on allowing public nudity.
The city’s municipal code prohibits nudity of anyone older than 10 years old in public, declaring it to be “offensive to members of the general public unwillingly exposed to such persons.”
The code defines the usual private body parts (and hair around such parts) as off limits to public exposure, including the female breast “at or below the areola.” Other cleavage and male breasts are fine.
Those who violate the ordinance can be cited with a misdemeanor and face a $500 fine, six months in jail or both.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Deputy City Attorney David J. Karlin told Wallis that he’s “relatively confident” that a court would rule in favor of the city regarding the legality of nudity in public.
But Wallis argues that free speech rights trump the city’s ability to outlaw nudity in public.
“If you start saying that the First Amendment applies, except for here and except for there because you don’t think it’s moral or civil, you don’t have a First Amendment,” he said.
In a draft of a legal brief he plans to file Wednesday, Wallis writes: “The proposed naked bicycle ride is a peaceful, law-abiding protest replete with artistic and political values and delivers a powerful message which is much needed at this time.”
Two attorneys who specialize in free-speech issues say the bike riders will face long odds in court.
“The government is going to say there’s a strong public interest in preventing lewdness, and there are other ways to protest without being completely nude,” said David L. Hudson Jr. of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center. He added that previous federal rulings on the topic of public nudity won’t help the cyclists.
J.D. Obenberger, a Chicago attorney who represents adult businesses, agreed. “There is no constitutional right to shock people” through an “inarticulate” form of expression like nudity, he said.
Other cities have taken a more lenient approach than San Diego to the spectacle of dozens or hundreds of naked and nearly naked bicyclists on their streets.
In Seattle, for instance, cops stand by each year as hundreds of bicyclists in body paint take part in a nude bike ride as part of a neighborhood parade. Police have also looked the other way during recent World Naked Bike events in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia.
Bush said the San Diego ride, scheduled for June 12 at 5 p.m., will occur whether or not nudity is allowed.
The riders will follow traffic laws, she said, unlike many of the riders in the monthly Critical Mass bike rides, which flood San Diego streets with hundreds of bicyclists in a protest against cars.
More than 60 people have confirmed they will attend the San Diego naked bike ride on the event’s Facebook page, and another 70 said they may attend.
Boyd Long, an assistant chief with the San Diego Police Department, said officers will be on scene to monitor the ride.
“If someone is there and is nude, we will take appropriate enforcement action,” he said. Nude people will be cited and perhaps taken into custody if they refuse to put their clothes on, he said.
However, he expects no more than a handful of riders, if that, will go au naturel. “Most people,” he said, “do not like to be naked in public.”
Contact Randy Dotinga directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.