Naturism and Civil Disobedience

          by  Mark Storey,  NAC Board Member

          May a naturist go so far as to break the law to encourage the liberalization of anti-nudity laws? When is nonviolent civil disobedience justified in advocating the naturist cause? Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls contend that there are conditions to be met before civil disobedience is morally justified.1 Though neither King nor Rawls are concerned with naturism, their discussions can highlight some important issues that we as naturists should consider when answering the questions above.

          I am concerned here only with determining when a naturist is morally justified in engaging in peaceful civil disobedience (hereafter CD) in a democracy with the intention to change an existing structure of civil laws or social policies that unjustly prohibits public non-lewd nudity. By CD I have in mind nude marches, an organized "Nude Day" at a textile beach, or a peaceful nude demonstration outside a government office. I am not attempting to defend the reasonable claim that backpacking, gardening in one's backyard, swimming at the beach, and other such activities engaged in while free of clothing are in themselves morally acceptable. Such activities may be against civil law in some places, but since the purpose of these activities is not primarily to challenge unjust law, they do not count here as examples of CD.

          It is easy to say that since there is nothing wrong with the naked human body per se that we are then justified in breaking laws in order to right the wrong of unjust anti-nudity legislation. But we must be careful. The authority of law serves the crucial purpose of providing citizens with an orderly environment in which they have the opportunity to flourish as human beings. Without law and respect for law social chaos is an all too disturbing possibility. Thus our breaking any law in order to change an unjust law must be done with circumspection.

          Some of the conditions for justification of CD offered by King and Rawls are essentially the same. I shall combine them and present them as a single set of five conditions so that we can see if a naturist can meet them.

          The first condition to meet prior to engaging in CD is to be sure that we are facing a clear and substantial injustice. As naturists, we must be sure that the law or policy we wish to challenge is actually unjust. This will include, first of all, being sure that anti-nudity legislation actually exists. I have been told that in Santa Cruz, California some women were justifiably concerned about men apparently having the opportunity to go topfree in public while women in the same situation must cover their breasts. They engaged in what they hoped would be a peaceful and civilly disobedient march--topfree--through downtown to the steps of city hall. The entire march proceeded without incident. They arrived at city hall and were finally confronted by some police, only to find that there was no law in Santa Cruz demanding that women cover their chests on city streets.

          Aside from the obvious need of being sure that anti-nudity legislation exists, we must also be sure that it is unjust. To achieve this end, we must not only be convinced that the legislation is unjust, but also be able to show that it is unjust. These two demands are not the same, though if the latter demand is met, certainly the former will be, also. If we engage in CD, are challenged to defend ourselves, and can only chant that in our opinion the anti-nudity law is unjust, we are open to the fallacious but all too often persuasive reply that since the opinion of the majority disagrees, our protest may therefore be ignored. Mere opinion--the naturists' or the supposed majority's--should count for little in determining whether a law is just or not. We need to be able to offer rational and compelling arguments for the moral acceptability of naturism. It is not the purpose of this discussion to offer such arguments, but those engaging in CD to further naturism should be able to defend their actions rationally and persuasively. Naturists have such arguments at their disposal and they must learn to present them prior to engaging in CD.

          This first condition also demands that the injustice be substantial. Breaking a law should not be done lightly. If the injustice is relatively trivial, then the seriousness of disobeying civil law is greater. If the injustice is significant, as was the case in Birmingham when King challenged systematic discrimination of blacks, then the harm coming from breaking the law may be less important relative to the injustice it addresses.

          Two questions need to be considered here. How substantial is the injustice of the anti-nudity policy, and how much harm is done by a specified act of CD challenging this policy? I cannot imagine how a naturist could argue that the injustice of anti-nudity policies is on a par with the injustice of the racism that King faced. This means that the naturist will be harder pressed to justify CD than King. The way for the naturist to meet this condition would be for the act of CD to be unlikely either to cause any significant harm to our social structure or to encourage disrespect for law. The illegal act, then, would be of less moral significance than the injustice of anti-nudity policies. Naturists must be committed to doing no more harm to society than the unjust anti-nudity policy does to them. After carefully considering the consequences of a proposed act of CD, a naturist should be able, in principle, to meet this first condition.

          The second condition is that negotiation in good faith with the proper authorities has been attempted and that such attempts have been unsuccessful. This can be more broadly interpreted as taking all legal action possible prior to CD and having such action fail. Negotiation in this broader sense involves, for example, direct appeal to legislators, advertising campaigns directed toward changing public perceptions of naturism, letters to newspapers, the attempt to elect people to office who are sympathetic to naturism, and engaging in activity that comes as close as possible to the public nudity that the law forbids. Examples of the latter include any public nudity that is so brief as to be unobtrusive yet public enough to show people that nudity per se is not a problem. Quickly getting in or out of a bathing suit for an outdoor shower at a public beach would serve this purpose.2 The point in demanding this second condition is to remind us of our prima facie duty to civil law and that we are thus duty bound to work within it as long as there is a reasonable chance of success.

          If we accept the demand for this second condition, we must ask ourselves whether we have done all that can reasonably be done to work "within the system." Only after unsuccessfully doing what legally can be done to change unjust anti-nudity laws could we be justified in breaking the law. Let us assume, for discussion, that we have not met this criterion--that we still have significant opportunities to work within the law to challenge unjust anti-naturist legislation. Some interesting questions now emerge. If this assumption is true, does it follow that each individual naturist is prohibited from engaging in CD to change unjust anti-nudity laws? Perhaps one woman has done all that she individually can within the law. Must she resolve not to engage in any form of CD to challenge unjust laws until all naturists have done what they can within the law? She might argue that the actions of Earth First!, a self-proclaimed radical environmentalist protest group, have made many people who are not inclined to embrace Environmentalism to look more favorably on the positions espoused by the more moderate Sierra Club. So too did King enjoy some popularity among white moderates due to the contrasting activities of the more strident Black Panthers. May she not play the role of Earth First! or Black Panther for the majority of naturists working within the law? King himself had done all that he could in Birmingham to work within the law, but certainly other people in the country could have applied lawful pressure to change the racist policies King was challenging. The door seems open, then, for individuals to engage in CD even if other naturists may still have viable legal options available to them.

          The third condition to be met is what King calls self-purification. By self-purification King means taking the time to be sure that your motivation is solely to challenge a social injustice and that you are willing to pay the penalty for breaking the law. Both aspects of self-purification can be satisfied by the naturist. This criterion would preclude someone from participating in a nude march simply to exhibit him- or herself in public. Such CD is never justified for someone with lewd motivations. Also, if we are not willing to pay fines or go to jail, then we are not justified in participating in CD. For CD to have power in a democracy, it must be done in the context of respect for the law. Our willingness to submit to the law once our point is made shows society that we take law as law seriously and that our claims as citizens should therefore be heard and given due consideration.

          The fourth condition is presented by Rawls: we must affirm that other people facing equivalent injustices have the right to also engage in similar acts of CD. Rawls is here bringing to our attention the need to be consistent in our moral deliberation. If we are morally justified in a given situation to do a particular act, so is everyone in similar circumstances. Affirming this principle tells society that we do not see ourselves in a morally privileged position. A thoughtful naturist should be able to meet this condition.

          Rawls offers the fifth and final condition in our discussion. Once we have determined that CD is morally acceptable, we still are limited in the actions that may be taken. The act of CD must be rational and it must be designed so that it is likely to reduce the injustice being challenged. According to this condition acts that have no good effect or are likely to be counter-productive are not justified. If a naturist was to force his way naked in protest onto the floor of a State Senate while the wording of legislation pertaining to public nudity was being debated, his act would probably do more harm than good to the naturist cause. Since he has a prima facie duty to obey civil law, and his act has no positive effect for justice, his act is solely harmful and thus unjustified.3 We need to be reasonably certain that our actions will help reduce injustice, otherwise we should not act.

          After examining these five conditions for CD it appears that naturists should be able easily to fulfill the third and fourth. In selecting the action to take, however, we should keep the first and the fifth conditions clearly in mind. Any likely negative effects to society should be no greater than the negative effects of the anti-nudity policies being challenged. Also, the action should be rationally designed so that it will likely reduce the injustice to naturists.

          The condition least easily met is the second: we must use the legal means at our disposal before engaging in CD. There is much more that each of us can legally do. Naturist activists groups like the Naturist Action Committee and the Naturist Education Foundation, for instance, are repeatedly demonstrating that unjust anti-nudity policies can be changed. Individuals can "come out of the closet" and in informal settings speak of their naturist experiences. Individuals can also practice naturism more fully, taking more courageous opportunities of clothes-free life in and out of doors. As more people are made aware that naturists consist of a cross section of society they will be less inclined to support unjust anti-nudity legislation. Perhaps before we consider engaging in what may very well be justified civil disobedience we should see what we can do legally to change society's attitude toward us.


    1 See Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," and John Rawls, "The Justification of Civil Disobedience," in Hugo Adam Bedau, ed. Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice (New York: Pegasus, 1969).

    2 For more suggestions along these lines, see Gene Caywood, "Changing Culture," Nude & Natural, 12.1 (Fall, 1992), pp. 25-28.

    3 For an informative discussion from a naturist perspective on the justification of an act that has both good and bad effects, see Jim C. Cunningham, "A Dialog of Conscience," Naturist LIFE International, No. 8 (Summer, 1993), pp. 22-24.

Mark Storey's article was previously published in Naturist LIFE International, No. 15 (Spring, 1996), pp. 21-23.


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