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If Topless, They'll Be Busted

Peace group's members are told to keep shirts on at Capitol or they might be deemed sex offenders.

November 05, 2005|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Topless women holding a protest may be ho-hum in San Francisco, but at the state Capitol, police say such a display could corrupt children, prompt drivers to veer off the road and cause sex offenders to run amok.

The California Highway Patrol has warned members of an organization called Breasts Not Bombs that if they dare to take their shirts off during a protest scheduled at the Capitol on Monday, they will be arrested and possibly forced to register with the state as sex offenders.

A federal judge on Friday said the state has every right to arrest them.

All of this was a shock to the leaders of the Mendocino-based group, which, according to its website, uses public breast-baring as a "forum to speak about the vulnerability of humanity and the earth." Bay Area protests by Breasts Not Bombs have yet to trigger even a disorderly conduct charge.

"We feel what we are doing is harmless," said Sherry Glaser, speaking for the group on the steps of the federal courthouse in Sacramento where she had gone to try to block the state from making arrests Monday.

"It's a demonstration of what freedom is, what peace is, what liberty is."

State officials said they're not being uptight.

"I don't think this is a matter of being prudish," said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the California attorney general's office, which is representing the state police in court. "The state Capitol is a unique venue open to everyone.... But it is not a forum for nudity."

Some have tried to make it one in recent years. There was the naked PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protester painted like a cat, crawling around in a cage. And the gay pride protesters who wore cellophane pants and pasties. And the man who, after being cited for possession of pot, stripped in protest.

All of them put their clothes back on when confronted by police, except the man with the marijuana. He went to jail.

At the court hearing Friday afternoon, Judge Garland E. Burrell ruled that "there is no 1st Amendment right to bare breasts on the grounds of the state Capitol."

Glaser said group members would consider over the weekend whether to defy the court and remove their tops Monday. She seemed to be leaning against it, especially after the CHP raised the issue of sex-offender registration.

State police say that when the group filed for a protest permit last month, there was no indication that Breasts Not Bombs was going to go topless. But the group's name made them suspicious.

"I decided to conduct some research," CHP Officer Keith Troy wrote in his court declaration. It's unclear what that research involved. But soon Troy called Glaser, who acknowledged that breasts would be bared.

The state also said in its court filing that nudity would "create an immediate hazard to the general motoring public," expose picnicking children to indecency and present "a particularized danger to the public" because "sex offenders have been known to frequent" the park surrounding the Capitol.

Barankin said the protesters would have to register as sex offenders only if convicted of committing intentionally lewd acts. Nudity for the sake of making a political statement, he said, might not fall into that category.

But the state remains baffled about what political statement Breasts Not Bombs would be making.

"They are topless protesters who claim as 'indecent' anything they oppose, including driving certain models of cars, individuals who commit sexual battery, and not respecting others," state attorneys wrote in court filings.

Breasts Not Bombs disagreed. To make the point that it has a clear political message, it included in its court filings part of the script for the one-woman play "The Adventures of Super Activist Mother," which they hope to perform on the west steps of the Capitol.

"Mammaries not Missiles," says one part of the script. "Nipples not Napalm. This issue is Soft Tissue!! This isn't easy, but this is an emergency."

State officials were unmoved.

"We don't care what they say," said Scott Wyckoff, an attorney for the state.

"We don't care who says it. You are just not going to be able to do it in the nude."

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