Nudist challenges male indecent exposure law

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The Independent Online

A male nudist will go to court on Friday to challenge a 150-year-old law which makes it a criminal offence to expose one's person in public.

Vincent Bethell, head of the protest group Freedom To Be Yourself, will ask the Crown Court in Birmingham to overturn a conviction for indecent exposure recorded against him after he walked naked through a Birmingham shopping centre last year. Magistrates in the city fined him £75 and ordered him to pay £50 towards the prosecution's costs.

The case is being watched closely by all nudists who are hoping for a relaxation in public nudity laws. Mr Bethell claims 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".

Mr Bethell said yesterday: "This is a sexist and outdated law.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?"

In June last year, Mr Bethell and another member of Freedom to be Yourself were followed by photographers and television camera crews as they walked along New Street in the centre of Birmingham, handing out nudist propaganda leaflets to passers-by.

Mr Bethell, 28, and Richard Chaffer, 24, of Coventry, were both stopped outside a McDonald's restaurant by Birmingham police officers and ordered to get dressed before being charged with indecent exposure.

During their trial, Frances Cook, for the prosecution, said: "There's no doubt that there was indecent exposure and there's no doubt it was to the annoyance of passers-by." The court was then shown television footage of both men walking through the city centre.

Mr Brian Dean, defending, told the court that Mr Chaffer's genitals were covered by a satchel but Mr Bethell was totally naked. Magistrates dismissed the indecency charge against Mr Chaffer, saying there was no case to answer.

Mr Bethell 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".

Disbelieving tourists stopped to photograph the bizarre spectacle and passing motorists also slowed down to get a better view. By the time police arrived the area was almost gridlocked.

After Mr Bethell ignored repeated requests to climb down, and kicked a ladder away from the 24ft lamp-post, officers decided to call in a specialist response unit. They built a scaffolding platform, and eventually managed to handcuff the nudist and bring him safely to the ground, where he was arrested.

On that occasion Mr Bethell was found guilty by Bow Street magistrates of disorderly behaviour, fined £150 and ordered to pay £75 costs.

A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service said she was not aware of any proposals to change the law. She added: "We can only apply the law as it stands."

If Mr Bethell loses his appeal he plans to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights to claim a breach of his freedom of expression.