Wanting to get some sun and an even tan, Michelle Bennett removed her top as she visited the Park Point beach with some friends on June 26.
It wasn't long, she said, before another woman approached her, asking her to cover up. The woman, who Bennett estimated to 60 or 70 feet away with her family, said her kids were uncomfortable.
A half-hour later, a Duluth police officer was on scene, asking Bennett to put her top back on.
"He told me it wasn't a nude beach," Bennett said. "I said no one here is nude."
Bennett's story, which she later shared on social media, set off a debate over the legality of women going topless on Minnesota beaches and other public spaces.
Bennett ultimately covered up, and was not arrested or cited. She contended state law does not prohibit the practice.
"I don't really understand how you can be that offended," Bennett said. "I was kind of traumatized by the whole ordeal."
Police spokeswoman Ingrid Hornibrook also confirmed that Bennett was not cited, but maintained that it remains illegal for women to be topless in public. She noted that a different statute defines nudity as including a woman's breasts.
Hornibrook said officers occasionally receive similar complaints, with two citations issued last year.
"It's one of those things where if someone is calling because they feel uncomfortable or unsafe — not that anyone felt unsafe in this case — but that’s the point where we would step in," she said. "If someone in the community is trying to enjoy a public asset and is feeling uncomfortable, we need to intervene."
But Minnesota law is not particularly clear on the issue.
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Under state statute, a person is guilty of indecent exposure when he or she "willfully and lewdly exposes the person's body, or the private parts thereof." If someone under the age of 16 is present, the crime is a gross misdemeanor.
But the statute does not specify what lawmakers viewed as "private parts." It does include a specific exception for breastfeeding mothers.
Bennett said she has routinely gone topless at Park Point over the past several years, but never before had the police called on her. She said there was nothing lewd or obscene about her behavior, and said she was left feeling as though her "body was being policed."
"I wasn't doing anything wrong," she said. "I was just laying there on the ground."
Topless sunbathing apparently is not a crime in any of Minnesota's neighboring states, including Wisconsin, where the state's obscenity law specifically applies only to the "genitals and pubic area."
The website GoTopless.org, which advocates for women to have the freedom go without a top in public, identifies Minnesota as one of 14 states with "ambiguous" laws. Most states allow women to go topless, the site reports, with only three having a clear ban.
Prior cases have drawn public attention. In Minneapolis, a 23-year-old woman was arrested for going topless at a Minnesota United soccer game in 2017. However, the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office later dropped the gross misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure, citing "prosecutorial discretion," according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The fact that Bennett was not issued a citation should not be taken as a sign that the practice is legal, Hornibrook said. Officers often use discretion in those situations, she said.
"The officer had a conversation with her and developed a rapport, and she did comply on her own," she said. "He wasn’t going to arrest her and cause even more of a scene."
But Bennett said the issue amounts to a clear double standard between men and women, and noted that the law could be particularly ambiguous when applied in cases involving transgender people.
She said she'd like to receive a clear assurance that no one would be arrested or prosecuted for going topless. That, however, would appear unlikely unless there is a successful legal challenge or legislative act further defining indecent exposure.
"The next time someone calls the police, I want the person on the other end of the phone to say, 'You need to leave them alone and stop harassing them,'" Bennett said.