Vincent's naked ambition

Vincent Bethell's determination to take his clothes off in public, and his refusal to wear anything for a court appearance, has dismayed magistrates. Is he a crank or a civil rights campaigner?
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Vincent Bethell is prepared to suffer for his nudity. For the past week he has been locked up in Brixton Prison because he refuses to wear clothes in court. Bow Street magistrates, who ordered his detention, hope that when he appears before them today he will have compromised and is now at least prepared to put his pants on.

Vincent Bethell is prepared to suffer for his nudity. For the past week he has been locked up in Brixton Prison because he refuses to wear clothes in court. Bow Street magistrates, who ordered his detention, hope that when he appears before them today he will have compromised and is now at least prepared to put his pants on.

That seems unlikely.

For the past two years Bethell, a 28-year-old former fine-art student from Coventry University, has been campaigning for the right be naked in public. His latest run-in with the law follows a series of naked protests in the capital, including outside the Metropolitan Police headquarters at New Scotland Yard and the House of Lords.

Bethell, whose wild beard covers a gentle demeanour, is no stranger to this kind of stunt. Last year he brought traffic to a halt during a naked "body beautiful" protest on top of a lamp-post outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. He held this position for two hours, wearing nothing but a small rucksack emblazoned with the word "freedom". It took police officers several attempts to get him down.

Naked or not, a week in a prison cell is marginally more comfortable than an afternoon up a lamp-post. So if magistrates are hoping for an easier ride today they are sadly mistaken. Bethell first defied court etiquette after he was arrested for disorderly conduct while attempting to catch a number 38 bus from Victoria in south London to his friend's home in Hackney, east London.

Stipendiary magistrate Nathan Evans responded by refusing to have him in court unclothed. An attempt by his solicitor to argue that the offending parts of his body could be covered up by a screen in front of the dock failed to impress Mr Evans. He said: "This court feels it's not for the defendant to dictate the circumstances in which he is prepared to enter the court. The court sees no reason why it should secede to his request or put up protective materials to shield the dock."

He added: "I think the court would wish Mr Bethell present at his trial but I am only prepared to allow him into court if he clothes himself."

Bethell was convicted in his absence and fined £100. But shortly afterwards he was outside the court, naked and clutching his belongings in a polythene bag, where he told reporters: "Being human is not a crime. My right to be human has been violated."

He was later arrested again and brought back to court where he refused to put his clothes on. Back to prison he went.

Bethell is a principled protester who is determined to portray the magistracy and the judiciary as being out of touch and prudish.

Mr Evans and his fellow magistrates believe they are fighting to uphold the dignity of the bench and the rule of law. In these kind of clashes there is rarely any easy compromise.

The courts have been put on notice for several weeks that Bethell, and his group, Freedom to be Yourself, were preparing a sustained protest. Last month, Bethell warned Judge Peter Crawford, who rejected his appeal over a £75 fine for indecent exposure, that he was planning to strip off permanently "until nakedness in public places is legalised". He told the Birmingham Crown Court judge: "It is outrageous that because someone doesn't like the way that I look, they can say that I'm indecent."

Outside court he added: "People can see I'm a rational, lucid man who has never had a psychotic moment. The suffragettes had a hard time and had to die for their cause. I'm trying to generate a situation where nakedness in public is deemed tobe acceptable."

Richard Chaffer, another fine-art student from Coventry, was arrested with Bethell during a similar naked protest in Birmingham but released because he chose to carry a satchel to cover his genitals.

Mr Chaffer says he will continue to run the campaign while Bethell remains behind bars. And he has an ominous message for the long-suffering bench: "We are planning to step up the campaign to show that we have not forgotten Vincent. Vincent has a lot of support and we will continue to fight for the right to be naked."

Indeed it is true that the campaign does enjoy support outside the rank and file of its small membership. Some of it comes from rather unexpected quarters, including Labour ministers and the writer Auberon Waugh. Last week, Mr Waugh described Bethell's actions as "courageous". In his column in The Sunday Telegraph he said: "Few, if any of us, will ever avail ourselves of this option [stripping off in public], but it is nice to think we have such a cheap and easy way of making a point, of distinguishing ourselves from the common herd, possibly even causing a minor sensation. We would never have heard of Vincent Bethell if he had not decided to take this lonely stand. I think he has made a good point, even if we cannot be sure what exactly it is."

Of more practical help is a recommendation by the Home Office's sexual offences review team, spurred on by at least one minister, to change the indecent exposure laws. Freedom to be Yourself has long argued that the law breaches sex discrimination legislation because only a man can be prosecuted under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. This law makes it an offence to expose one's "person" to the annoyance of "passengers or residents" and it specifically stipulates that "person" means "penis".

Bethell says: "This is a sexist and outdated law. If it's an offence for a man to expose his genitalia in public then why isn't the same true for a woman?"

As long ago as 1809, the courts established that it was no defence to a charge of indecent exposure to say that the accused was a nude sunbather. The Town Police Clauses Act 1847 was intended to protect public transport users from male nudity. Police are now more likely to prosecute nudists or naturists for breach of the peace, or under the Public Order Act 1986.

Mr Waugh seems to think that Bethell and his group can even help to achieve changes to the law that they perhaps hadn't considered when they first set out on their campaign: "It would be nice to think," says Waugh, "he was protesting against the general prevalence of near-nudity. In Taunton, there is a man of great ugliness with a huge hairy stomach, who regularly appears wearing nothing but a tiny pair of shorts, even in winter. He may offend against recognised standards of propriety, but because he keeps his shorts on, nobody can charge him with indecency, let alone obscenity."