Social Nudism in Michigan-The Defining Case
Hildabridle vs. State of Michigan
Many states in the US have laws against “indecent exposure” which in Michigan is defined as “…any open, indecent exposure of his or her person or the person of another.” Hardly definitive…and, in fact, this vague and non-specific prohibition provided an open door opportunity for any zealous or self-righteous police officer or other authority to harass, arrest or threaten citizens who were sunbathing nude or recreating at a nudist resort. Yes, in the 1950s nudist resorts were not immune from raids by police of the sort made on illegal gambling dens, drug distributors or human traffickers.
In 1956 just this sort of zealous Battle Creek City police detective, aware of the existence of Sunshine Gardens Nudist Resort in nearby Bedford Township (about 3 miles from where the author lives) decided to pay a visit to the resort.
This detective who asked a State police officer to accompany him on the pretext of some “business” visited the resort, observed nudists on the premises, then returned the next day with warrants and arrested three men (Earl Hildabridle and two others) and one woman on a charge of “indecent exposure”. The four nudists were convicted and appealed their conviction. The case wound up in the Michigan Supreme Court.
The court found two issues…the first was the legality of the search and the second, nudity as indecent exposure.
The Legality of the Search
On this issue the Court was less than amused:
“The fact is the record…is barren of any testimony these two officers went to the camp on June 15 for any other purpose than as an initial step in a plan to conduct a mass raid on the place.” And, further….the Chief Justice was outraged…
“Yet to say this search was illegal is an understatement. What was indecent…indeed the one big indecency we find in this whole case : descending on these unsuspecting souls like storm troopers; herding them before clicking cameras like plucked chickens, hauling them away in police cars and questioning them for upwards of 5 ½ hours and taking still more pictures; and then, final irony swearing out warrants that one of their own number was the aggrieved victim of an indecent exposure. If this search was legal than any deputized window-peeper with a ladder can spy on any married couple and forthwith photograph and arrest them for exposing themselves to him.”
The court went on to categorize further the violations to the 4 Amendment and other violations of civil rights in this case….which are entertaining and wonderful in their own right. However, the issue of nudity as “indecent exposure” is the primary purpose of this article and we’ll leave this part of the case with a clear understanding the search was tainted and inadmissable.
The Violation of the Statute (Prohibition against Indecent Exposure)
As the justices considered the case, the situation portrayed did not impress Justice Voelker…
“…when the police arrived the defendants were sitting or standing in various leisurely attitudes alone or in family and other groups at or near a depressed pool or pond; there was not the slightest evidence by word or gesture of any act or sign of obscenity, lewdness, indecency or immorality. Except for the fact they were entirely unclothed they might have been any group of people enjoying a rural weekend outing.” The court went on to consider the history of Sunshine Gardens:
“While this nudist camp had operated for 14 years none of the testifying officers had ever received or heard of a complaint against the place. The closest…was the testimony of a State trooper whom heard from a few disgruntled motorists he had ticketed and had “twitted” him about the place. So the presumably outraged community boils down to a knot of determined police officers who…after 14 years finally made up their minds to set a trap and tip over the place. And tip it they did.”
Justice Voelker went on to spend time on the heart of the matter….the issue of whether simple nudism is a violation of the statute prohibiting “indecent exposure”. It is worth the ink here in the author’s view…and your attention to note a good portion of Justice Voelker’s thoughts…his argument is clear and compelling. And the author wanted you to see for yourself why this judge ruefully admitted he might be considered the “patron saint” of social nudism:
“Lest I henceforth be heralded as the patron saint of nudism (which I probably will be anyway), I hasten to preface what follows by stating that I am not a disciple of the cult of nudism. Its presumed enchantments totally elude me. The prospect of displaying my unveiled person before others, or beholding others thus displayed, revolts and horrifies me. I think these people have carried an arguably valid basic idea ( the deliberate de emphasis of the prevailing Sestern body taboo, with the anticipated lessening and ultimate disappearance of the undoubted eroticism frequently attendant upon such taboo–that is the very opposite of indecency) to excessive lengths.
Having said all that I have at once veered to the heart of the case. It is this: Whatever I or my associates (or the circuit judgment of the police or prosecutor, for that matter) may personally think of the practice has nothing to do with the case. More controlling is the fact that there are a number of earnest people in the world (including these defendants) who do subscribe to organized nudism and who think it is morally, mentally and physically healthful. But we need not speculate on or defend or attack the philosophy of nudism. The question before us is much simpler. Were these defendants guilty of making an indecent exposure? I say no.”
“It is said there are hardy bands of sincere and earnest folk among us who likewise insist that all mental, moral and physical health depends on the regular consumption of vast quantities of bran. Others possess a similar passion for goat’s milk. Few molest them or even bother their heads about them unless they try too strenuously to impose or inflict their queer beliefs upon those who happen to loathe these items.”
“Thus, on the facts before us, do I equate the criminality of private social nudism – at least so far as this statute is concerned? Private fanaticism or even bad taste is not yet a ground for police interference. If eccentricity were a crime, then all of us were felons.”
Nudity and Indecent Exposure
Judge Voelker goes on to discuss the whole question of the statute and the logic used to reach a conclusion of guilt. He notes that in a prior “Ring Case” “…my Brother (referring to another Justice on the court)has “leapt to the erroneous conclusion that nudity is synonymous with indecency. Both cases proceed on the basic assumption that nudity in itself is obscene or indecent….If this assumption were valid few artists could work from live models….and that stalwart badge of middle-class respectability National Geographic magazine would be banished from the hearth to the censor’s shears.”
Where from here?
Judge Voelker goes on to describe his test for indecency (which the author will discuss in a follow on article). However in the meantime he is clear on whose responsibility it is to further address the issue of private nudism.
“If private nudism is to be banished in this state as contrary to the public morality we think this attempt must be made by the legislature and not by the police or this Court, and certainly not be stretching out of shape the law of search and seizure and the proper meaning of this statute.”
As a final note, prosecutors had leaned on the “Ring Case” (which was a somewhat similar case and for which the court decided in favor of the prosecution) to attempt to convict Hildabridle. Judge Voelker wasn’t having it and effectively said that not only should Hildabridle et al go free….the Ring decision was a mistake.
“An aroused Judge has instead used this Court as a platform to tell the world what he thinks about such queer newfangled shenanigans as nudism. Now moral indignation is all very well, and many of us might do with more of it, but to indulge in it at the expense of basic constitutional rights and individual liberties can be an expensive and dangerous luxury. Moral indignation is a poor substitute for due process.”
The 1956 Hildabridle decision has had a marked influence on the state of nudist resorts in Michigan with several (unfortunately Sunshine Gardens is not among them) now doing well and most respected as visible legitimate business ventures, including the largest nudist resort in the Midwest, Turtle Lake Resort.
While Judge Voelker may not be a patron saint of nudism he has done one of the finest jobs (in this author’s opinion) of stating the nudist case. He has articulated well (especially for a non-nudist) why nudism in and of itself is not indecent at all. And while he and others may not take to it, it is part of our constitutional guarantee to not be prosecuted simply because what we believe is not popular. Judge Voelker even attempted to help the legislation with a test for indecent exposure. That will be offered at another time…..