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Topless in not-quite-"public"

A business is within its rights to impose a dress code; but the reasons behind the rules matter.

(Photo: Park Ji-Hwan/Getty)

According to a recent CBC story, a Toronto woman was chastised by security guards after taking her shirt off (leaving only her rather modest black bra) at Toronto’s Festival of Beer.

Here’s the story, “Toronto woman told to put her top on“:

…Jeanette Martin was at the annual Toronto beer gathering on Sunday when she took up a dare from one of her friends and took off her shirt. She was wearing a bra but apparently that wasn’t enough for organizers. “Within 10 seconds flat I had a security guard telling me to put my top back on or else I’d be escorted out of the grounds,” Martin told CBC News….

The CBC story rightly points out that, 20 years ago, a young Canadian woman named Gwen Jacobs fought and won a legal battle for the right to go topless—entirely topless—in public.

What the CBC story misses, however, is that the Festival of Beer is not a public place. It’s a business venue. As we all know, there are plenty of business establishments with a policy: “No shirt, no shoes …no service!” The basic ethical principle here is that private establishments get to make their own rules about the tone they want to set.

In fact, the Beer Festival’s rules aren’t limited to proper attire. According to the Festival’s FAQ, there are plenty of rules, with visitors barred from bringing: pets, children, opened water, food, chairs, coolers, large video cameras and cameras other than for personal use.

Of course, these rules aren’t all about attire, but you see the point. A private business gets to set rules, including ones that set the tone for their events, and attire is a significant part of that. Bars and nightclubs in particular very often have dress codes—many forbid ripped jeans, for example, or require that men wear shirts with collars. (For interesting reading, see the rules for attire for customers of Harrod’s department store.) Now pointing out that companies generally have the right to make their own rules for decorum doesn’t mean there are not ethical limits on such rules. It’s not hard to imagine truly morally obnoxious rules they could impose. For example, if a company imposed Victorian standards on women but put no limits at all on what men could wear, that would be unfairly discriminatory. But requiring shirts is far from that.

Unfortunately, while the Beer Festival’s organizers may have been within their rights to establish rules of decorum for their event, the reasons offered by the event’s organizers were weak ones. According to the CBC, “Martin was told that she would attract unwanted attention from men and her safety was at risk.”

As Martin herself suggested (along with many who posted comments on the story), if men are behaving badly, then security should deal with them, rather than blaming Martin.

Update: We’ve learned through other news outlets that Martin says there were women wearing bikini tops at the Beer Fest on the day in question. That makes Security’s objections harder to understand. A business is still within its rights, but the distinction between a bra and a bikini top is, well, skimpy.