The History of How Nudity Became Illegal at Venice Beach
As the 1970’s dawned, the Counterculture Age began to discover the joy of sunbathing nude. Beach nudists got their first big break in June, 1972, when the California Supreme Court unanimously decided in the Chad Merrill Smith case that mere nudity unaccompanied by lewd intent was not a sexual offense.
When the impact of this decision sunk in, the police found themselves without the legal authority to arrest beach nudists, although deputies continued to cite nudists for “disturbing the peace.” But on July 31, 1973, the Appellate Department of the Superior Court, Los Angeles—no doubt influenced by the Smith decision—ruled that nude sunbathing could not be prosecuted as a violation of Section 415 of the penal code. As a result, the LA County District Attorney said that arrests for nude sunbathing would no longer be prosecuted unless there were additional complaints for drug abuse, offensive or lewd conduct, etc., if the complaint was made by a private citizen, not the deputy.
Now the number of nude beaches along the Southern California coast starting to grow exponentially. Early in 1974, Eugene Callen and other leaders of a local nudist club, Beachfront USA, set their sights on establishing a legal nude area at Brooks Beach alongside the Venice boardwalk. Venice was a well-known eclectic community just south of Santa Monica with a live-and-let-live bohemian culture.
A thousand flyers were printed by BFUSA and distributed at other popular nudist beaches such as Pirate’s Cove / Zuma, Smuggler’s Cove (Palos Verdes) and County Line (Pt. Mugu). The flyers included a map and invited all nudists to come to Venice. The police were informed that, in the absence of specific anti-nudity legislation, BFUSA would challenge any arrests in court.
That first weekend was a smashing success with perhaps a hundred nudists enjoying their new beach. Even a Los Angeles Times editorial supported the idea of sharing the beach. However, word spread rapidly and within a few weeks, the nudists were vastly outnumbered by gawkers and the media. Property was trampled, and traffic slowed to a stop.
The nudists appealed to the LA City Council to pass a law legalizing the beach, and the proposal received a favorable 90-minute hearing followed by a 10-3 positive vote. The nudist community was overjoyed. But since the vote was not unanimous, the item had to come back to the council for a second reading and vote two weeks later.
During those two weeks, those opposed to the beach launched a suffocating campaign aimed at reversing the decision. Archbishop Roger Mahoney (not yet a Cardinal) urged all Catholics in the city to oppose the nude beach and to write letters to their city council members. Law enforcement officials and other local “experts” were interviewed on news programs warning of increased crime and vandalism if the nude beach was approved.
On the day of the second reading, with approval in doubt, speakers before the council spoke passionately for both sides.
Finally, a man named Robert Opel stood to address the Council. Opel, if you know your trivia history, is the man best known for streaking the Academy Awards in 1974. The 35-year old stood at the podium and proceeded to take off all his clothes, and he dared the Council to oppose the beach. They did. By a 12-1 decision, the council reversed their earlier preference and gave law enforcement an enforceable code for legally allowed beach clothing. Los Angeles Police officers dressed in blue shorts and T-shirts soon were visible all along the 100-mile county coast enforcing the new law:
“No person shall appear any place under the jurisdiction of the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners…in such a manner that the genitals, vulva, pubis, pubic, symphysis, pubic hair, buttocks, natal cleft, perineum, anus, anal region, or pubic hair region of any person, or any portion of the breast at or below the upper edge of the areola thereof of any female person, is exposed to public view or is not covered by an opaque covering.” Subdivision (x) further provides: “This subdivision shall not apply to children under the age of 10 years.”
The following summer, Los Angeles County, which now claimed operational jurisdiction over all the beaches in the county, made one of their first orders of business the passing of a similar ordinance to the one passed by L.A. City. The effort was led by newly-elected Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is also known to nudists in Los Angeles as the man who led the 25-year (unsuccessful) crusade to close Elysium Fields in Topanga Canyon.
The nudists did not go quietly.
During the weekend of the 1976 National Bicentennial Celebration, nudists again tried to rally and establish a beach of their own, this time at Pirates Cove, the remote 100-yard long stretch of sand in Malibu near Zuma Beach. The rally – a march down the coast from Zuma Beach to Venice Beach – was widely advertised in the underground press and on radio stations.
An estimated 1,200 clothed nudists showed up early for this “National Nude Beach Day,” but more than 8,000 were prevented from joining them by midday as police blocked nearby roads and surrounded the adjoining hillsides with officers in squad cars, in helicopters, on motorcycles, on horseback, on foot, and even in boats. The intimidation worked, and very few people disrobed. Those that did were quickly arrested and removed from the beach.
In the early 1980’s, Beachfront USA set up an information table at the Venice Beach Boardwalk on weekends for a while, attempting to gather enough petition signatures to rescind the city and county ordinances. But interest seemed to wane among the general public, both the table and the petition were abandoned.
During the 1984 Olympic Games, many European tourists came to Venice to enjoy the beach and removed their clothes, as they were used to doing in their home countries. The police were instructed not to enforce the law, lest there be an international incident. Local nudists who were aware of the moratorium, happily mingled with the Europeans during those three weeks.
Seeing this more relaxed attitude by law enforcement toward beach nudity, Beachfront USA decided to test the constitutionality of the ordinance on the grounds it was preempted by the Chad Merrill Smith court decision.
On July 13, 1986, two members of the club, Dave and Suzy Davis, removed their clothes on Venice Beach and were arrested for public nudity before they could run into the ocean. They were released without charges being filed.
A month later, on August 31, Dave and Suzy were back, attempting to lead a nude march down the beach. Police were ready for them. As soon as they removed their clothes they were wrestled to the sand, handcuffed, and literally dragged away. This time they were charged with resisting arrest and battery on an officer (although Suzy and Dave seemed to have all the bruises).
They were found guilty, but the case was appealed to the California Ninth Circuit Court, which, to Beachfront’s surprise, upheld the city and county laws, stating:
“…The appearance of some persons utilizing said parks and beaches by appearing thereon without clothing and with the private parts of their bodies exposed, unreasonably interferes with the right of all persons to use and enjoy said parks and beaches by causing many persons to leave, and others not to come to said parks and beaches….We therefore conclude that the ordinances on their face do not infringe upon the rights of freedom of speech or expression but are valid regulations of conduct.”
It was the last time any large organized effort was made to establish a nude beach in Los Angeles County. During the next few years, clone ordinances of almost identical language were appearing in many municipalities and other counties across Southern California.
And that, boys and girls, is why there are no nude beaches to this day in Los Angeles County, despite 100 miles of beautiful and beckoning coastline!
Throughout the mid-80’s the newspapers published stories of women being cited at Venice for removing the tops of their bathing suits, although if the women simply rolled onto her stomach, the officers let them be. This is still the custom today, and women (and men) may also wear string bottoms without harassment. Venice Beach remains the place to see surfer stores, muscle-bound bodybuilders lifting weights, art vendors, showmen juggling chain saws, and women in string bikinis roller skating among the tourists and skateboarders.
Each August, there is a march down the boardwalk by women wearing band aids or pasties in the shape of nipples across their areola, demanding bare chest equality with men.
The current “Free the Nipple” campaign, sparked by certain celebrities wanting top-free equality with men, has ignited new interest in Venice Beach. But so far, local politicians have indicated no interest in joining the cause.
Thanks to Cec Cinder and Ricc Bieber for much of the background material.
This article first appeared in the SCNA Newsletter, May, 2015. Reproduced with permission.
About SCNA: The Southern California Naturist Association (SCNA) is a 501(c) non-profit member-run corporation open to naturists of all ages, sexual preferences, and marital statuses. The club hosts swim parties, beach days, nude hikes, bowling, nude art exhibits, comedy nights, etc., servicing the needs of naturist in the greater Los Angeles area since 2002. For further information, see www.socalnaturist.org.
this post about how Venice Beach almost became a legal nude beach in Los Angeles USA was written by SCNA and published by – Young Naturists and Nudists America