Duluth woman going topless sparks debate over Minnesota's indecency laws

Police were called after she went topless at Park Point beach.
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Topless woman

A Duluth woman's choice to go topless on a local beach has sparked a discussion over what is considered "indecent exposure" in Minnesota.

A woman with children called the police on Michelle Bennett after she refused to cover up while sunbathing topless at Park Point beach in the Twin Ports.

As FOX 21 reports, a police officer told Bennett it wasn't a nude beach, only for Bennett to respond that she wasn't nude, she was topless. 

The officer left without taking any action against Bennett, who nonetheless put a shirt on but only after she pointed out some inconsistencies in Minnesota state laws regarding indecent exposure.

Under Minnesota Statute 617.23, misdemeanor indecent exposure is defined as in instance in which someone "willfully and lewdly exposes the person's body, or the private parts thereof" or someone who "engages in any open or gross lewdness or lascivious behavior."

As Bennett argued, this doesn't specifically reference female breasts as being private parts, though the statute does include an exemption for breastfeeding mothers.

Another element of Minnesota law concerns "sexually explicit materials" that could be harmful to the wider public and particularly minors.

This technically does define nudity as including the "breast of a human being,"  which is considered to be sexually explicit on occasions including when it is "presented before an audience."

Talking to the Duluth News Tribune, Bennett said the woman who complained was 60-70 feet away from her with her children at the time, and she argued that she wasn't before an audience at the time she was sunbathing.

The topless debate in Minnesota

It is not the first time that the subject of female toplessness has sparked a debate over indecent exposure.

In 2017, a 23-year-old woman was jailed and charged with a gross misdemeanor after taking her top off at a Minnesota United match, which was seen by a 7-year-old boy in the crowd.

Several men in the crowd had also taken their tops off on a humid day in Minneapolis, but she was the only one asked to cover up. She refused and was arrested as a result.

And while state statute exempts breastfeeding mothers, that didn't stop two mothers being asked to cover up by staff at a pool in mother as they fed their children last summer, sparking a protest outside the pool.

There is a wider national movement led by Go Topless that seeks to allow women to legally be topless in the same public locations where men are permitted to do the same.

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