By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Nudists of the world unite!
That, in fact, is exactly what happened when Miami Shores resident Richard Mason, president of South Florida Free Beaches, sounded the alarm over a bill to restrict public nudity that's being considered by the House Criminal Justice Committee in Tallahassee. "This is more than a nudist issue A it's a tourist issue," says Mason. "When you're saying to European tourists, 'Your sunbathing customs are criminal,' this will literally drive people to Cuban beaches. This will be the Cuban Relief Act of '95!"
Using this passionate rhetoric, Mason, along with lobbyist and fellow nudist Ramon Maury, launched a grassroots campaign that has deluged the committee with hundreds of messages and letters from outraged naturists in Florida and abroad.
The committee flinched. Slightly. Although a watered-down bill that restricted nudity in state parks passed in a close vote, the proposed measure -- which has not yet been considered by the full House or Senate -- would not affect the most popular clothing-optional beaches in South Florida, Haulover Beach and South Beach. Even so, Mason and Maury remain vigilant. "Once this bill goes to the floor, it's fair game for anyone who wants to amend it," Maury warns. "The mood of the new legislature is to take away this freedom from families and consenting adults."
If the wrangling in committee is any guide, a citizen's right to sunbathe in the altogether won't be stripped away without a fight. In the state capital, the legislative equivalent of mud-wrestling over nudity is becoming an annual tradition.
This latest bill, as proposed by State Rep. Buddy Johnson (R-Plant City), originally aimed to prohibit anyone from being "naked or in a nude state in public except in any place provided or set apart for that purpose," making that offense a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. It was amended in committee to cover only state parks. The measure seeks to remedy what advocates see as a loophole in the state's indecent-exposure statute; state and federal courts have ruled that the section of that statute dealing with "exposure of sexual organs" does not bar nudity unless accompanied by "vulgar and indecent" behavior. In 1993, for instance, a federal magistrate overturned the arrests of eight nude sunbathers at Canaveral National Seashore (U.S. v. A Naked Person Issued Notice of Violation No. P41940), prompting state and national park officials, along with the religious right, to push for new legislation to sharply limit public nudity. That set off a fusillade of lobbying in the last legislative session, with the conservative American Family Association of Florida summoning its troops and allies to do battle with a variety of nudist organizations.
The anti-nudists' main argument is this: Anyone can walk naked anywhere without getting arrested. Baloney, say nude-niks, who point out that the state's disorderly conduct statute permits such arrests. Though a Senate committee approved an anti-nudity bill, no new law resulted. "That [nudity issue] assault grabbed everyone's attention, and we had no time to attend to other issues," complains one legislative staffer rubbed raw by the politicking.
This year Criminal Justice Committee chairman Elvin Martinez (D-Tampa) said he wanted to avoid any distractions by bringing up the matter early in January. (The bill was quietly introduced by the chairman himself, in part because Johnson, its chief supporter, doesn't sit on the committee.) Richard Mason hints at a darker motivation: "The leadership engendered the bill quickly before we could know about it because they didn't want to put up with our lobbying." Indeed, the "nonclothing community" didn't learn about the bill and the committee's plans for a January 24 hearing until the second week of January -- but then they quickly swung into action.
Hell, it seems, hath no fury like a nudist scorned. Beginning on the weekend of January 13, Mason and Maury, among others, contacted members of the "Non-Group," a coalition representing about 40 Florida nudist clubs that have a combined membership of 45,000. Those leaders contacted their members and began bombarding members of the committee with letters and faxes. Dade tourist industry officials were also notified, leading some, including Don Meginley of the Ocean Drive Association, to pen blistering missives. "Does everyone in Tallahassee insist on being offensive to our European visitors to South Beach, or is everyone in Tallahassee just stupid?" Meginley wrote. "Either way, the Florida legislature should be working on getting people to come to Florida, not create bills which chase them away."
At the same time, Mason prepared 4500 copies of an inflammatory leaflet and distributed it at local beaches. "LEGISLATIVE ALERT!" it virtually screamed. "If you are reading this on Miami Beach or Haulover Beach and you are nude or top-free, you will be a criminal on October 1, 1995," referring to the date on which a new law, if passed, would take effect. The back of each leaflet listed committee members to contact. Mason also arranged to post similar information on the Internet and America On-Line.
"The lobbying was very heavy, from all over the world," confirms Lynn Cobb, staff director of the Criminal Justice Committee. "My chairman used up an entire ream of fax paper [receiving messages]." Arriving from as far away as Australia, the protests warned that foreign visitors wouldn't come to Florida and derided the bill as unnecessary and costly. "We do not want our tax dollars wasted on such a preposterous boondoggle!" wrote Bruce Frendahl, a former president of South Florida Free Beaches.
To Cobb, the nudists' apprehension is unwarranted. "The bill wouldn't stop nudity, or stop tourists from taking off their clothes in appropriate places," she asserts. (Nudism advocates say that without a formal local government vote permitting nudity in certain places -- a political impossibility -- the practice might indeed be banned.)
The committee room was packed on January 24, when proponents and supporters lined up to testify. Legislators spoke up, too. Rep. Mark Flanagan (R-Bradenton) fumed, "I find it offensive that anyone can just throw down their towel beside me and my family and get buck-naked." Chairman Elvin Martinez, apparently swayed by the religious right's propaganda, intoned, "My understanding of the current status of the law is there's nothing illegal about anyone in this audience standing up and taking off all their clothes and sitting here naked." (In fact, nobody did so, but anyone who had would have risked arrest for disorderly conduct; court rulings upheld such arrests in 1976 and 1986.) On the other hand, Rep. Sally Heyman (D-North Miami Beach) argued, "We don't have enough money for prisons, but what do we do? Pass legislation that makes skinny-dippers sex offenders. We don't need to create new criminals, we need to deal with the criminals we have."
Buddy Johnson and his supporters sought to downplay the scary economic side effects cited by critics. "This bill would not put South Beach out of business," he said before the bill was amended to cover only state parks, adding that the measure is needed because Florida is a "family-friendly" state. David Caton, executive director of the American Family Association of Florida and a self-described "former porn addict," built on those themes. "Family tourism is the largest industry in our state," Caton declared. "We can see that nudists are very organized, they're encroaching on the beaches, and they're demanding more places to show their...wares."
Master strategist Ramon Maury knows that the fight for preserving truth, justice, and the American T & A is a never-ending one. The bill may reach the floor when the legislature returns next month, but Maury is hoping to sidetrack it to other committees and then work to kill it. "The battle has just begun," he promises. "We have a long way to go, and we hope the people of Florida wake up and take action.