A woman who was detained for going topless at a Bernie Sanders rally in Los Angeles filed a federal lawsuit against the city, police department, and two officers last week. She claims that not only was she assaulted by the cops who arrested her, but the arrest itself was unlawful and that her right to "free the nipple" was violated.
On March 23, 25-year-old Anni Ma was on the sidewalk outside of the Wiltern Theater in LA, where a political rally was taking place for Sanders. She wore a skirt and masking tape over her nipples, which included the words "Free the Nipple" and "Feel the Bern." She also had "Equality" written on her upper chest and "ERA" on her stomach.
According to the suit, once Ma removed the masking tape, thereby exposing her areolas, she was approached by LAPD officers Weston and Bermudez, who "grabbed her by her arms and forced her up against a large pole." The officers told Ma she had to put the tape back over her nipples or she'd be arrested. When she didn't reply, the suit alleges, "Weston held Plaintiff's arms behind her back, forced her face down to the ground, placing his knee in her back." With the help of security personnel, Weston cuffed Ma as she yelled, "Feel the Bern," "My body my choice," and "Free the nipple."
Ma was booked for indecent exposure, and bail was set at $10,000. City prosecutors declined to pursue the charge.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Ma's attorney R. Allen Baylis said California's indecent exposure law "only applies to genitals" and that incidents like these lead police to assume going topless is illegal in California. The suit alleges that the officers should have known that "'mammary glands' are obviously not sex organs."
The plaintiff also claims her First Amendment right, which includes the freedom to express political ideas, was violated. During the rally, the complaint says, Ma was "protesting claimed abuses of unequal treatment of women based on gender discrimination." Those abuses just happened to be communicated via the messages written on her body.
Ma is seeking punitive and exemplary damages for physical pain, suffering, and emotional trauma.
A similar lawsuit was filed in Fort Collins, Colorado, earlier this year against the city. According to a local news channel, the plaintiffs in that case also claim that "banning women from baring their breasts in public is a violation of the first amendment."