What if a person committed a crime simply by wearing the wrong outfit? What if that person were subject to a $2,000 fine, up to 90 days in jail, and community service for what he or she was wearing? Can’t happen? Think again.
According to a news story from CBS 2 New York, that is exactly what may happen in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Over 40 years ago, Asbury Park made it a criminal offense to wear “bathing attire” on the boardwalk that borders the beach. Crossing the boardwalk is the only access to the beach, and there are no changing areas on the beach. The law has not been enforced for decades, but a former city councilwoman wants to change that.
She says that the 40-year-old law should be enforced because people on the boardwalk in beachwear don’t look like they belong in Sports Illustrated or GQ, and people don’t want to see that.
We have all seen people who should cover up more at the beach (and in public generally, for that matter). But do we want to make vanity a criminal offense? Subject to a $2,000 fine and 90 days in jail? What if city councils started criminalizing every outfit that was unappealing? Men who wear black belts with brown shoes would be out a week’s pay. Every November through December, jails would be overflowing with grandmothers in holiday sweaters. And we might as well throw away the key if someone has the poor taste to wear a leisure suit.
Another problem with the ordinance is enforcement. How would this law be enforced? Who determines whether something is “bathing attire”? Will there be a TSA-like inspector to feel whether a person’s clothing is made of “bathing attire” material? Will the test for “bathing attire” be a limit on skin exposure? Is a wetsuit that reveals little or no skin “bathing attire”? Since the ordinance is aimed at banning unsightly people, will there be a Sports Illustrated or GQ defense?
These questions and scenarios are meant to be ridiculous. Sadly, they are not much more ridiculous than the Asbury Park ordinance itself. This highlights the problem of criminalizing every act that we find undesirable—it can lead to ridiculous outcomes. If Asbury Park sees “bathing attire” on the boardwalk as a threat to its community, there are more practical ways of dealing with it, such as looking the other way.