Raleigh, N.C. — Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, knows all too well that House Bill 34, her bill defining women’s nipples as indecent, has been the punchline of many a joke this session.
“We’ve had the most fun with this bill for about the past week and a half, and that’s OK. You need to laugh sometimes,” she told the House Judiciary C Committee. “But there are communities across this state, there’s local governments across this state, and also local law enforcement for whom this issue is really not a laughing matter.”
The measure was requested by Asheville officials after participants in a women's rights rally held a second annual topless protest in a downtown park last summer.
Brown, whose district is more than 100 miles from Asheville, said she hadn’t planned to get involved with the issue until she started getting calls about it from her constituents. “I felt that, if this was of concern to my constituents, it was going to be of concern to others as well.”
Brown says topless protests are actually illegal under the current law, but there’s some confusion about it, dating to conflicting court rulings from the 1970s.
“You’ve got local governments passing ordinances to protect themselves from just this thing,” she said. “These folks don’t need to be doing that, but they do it because they’re not sure about the law.
“This bill that I’m presenting in no way shape or form changes North Carolina law,” she said, “but we do need clarification.”
North Carolina law already forbids “indecent exposure,” but it doesn’t specifically define “private parts” as including breasts.
The proposal adds that definition, including “the nipple, or any portion of the areola, of the human female breast,” with an exception made for breastfeeding.
“All we are doing is codifying the Supreme Court definition of ‘private parts,’" added committee Chairwoman Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry. “That’s it. “
Rep. Annie Mobley, D-Ahoskie, voiced concerns that the bill could affect people wearing “questionable fashions.”
Stevens said using pasties or other nipple coverings would protect those women against prosecution. “They’d be good to go.”
Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, quipped, “You know what they say – duct tape fixes everything.”
The measure passed the committee on a nearly-unanimous voice vote. Its next stop will be the House floor.