NEW YORK CITY—Holly Van Voast is a celebrity photographer—a paparazza, if you will—whose schtick is to attend events and photograph them ... while topless and sporting a brown fedora, a Marilyn Monroe wig and a penciled-on "Don Juan" mustache. She calls that character "Harvey Van Toast."
For her profession, it's a guise that makes almost perfect sense. Although Van Voast has said that her attire (or lack of it) "is partially to gain exposure for her friends in the 'punk drag' community" like drag queens Charmin Ultra, Misty Meaner, Mary Jo Cameltoe, Heidi Glum and Cherry Poppins, there's no denying that when she's behind a barricade, trying to photograph celebs on a red carpet walk or in a parade, being female and topless (especially with a hat and mustache) is a surefire attention-getter—and the best shot is almost always the one where the subject is looking directly at the camera!
But the New York City Police Department (NYPD) hasn't exactly seen it that way. Over the past couple of years, Van Voast has been "stopped, detained, harassed, arrested, summonsed, charged and/or prosecuted" 11 times for such horseshit as "indecent exposure," "public lewdness" and appearing topless "without a permit." Most egregiously, however, was the incident on March 14, 2012, when Van Voast chose to doff her top on Manhattan's ritzy Upper East Side ... right outside the P.S. 6 elementary school. For that, the cops not only arrested her, they had her committed to the psych ward at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where she was held "for observation" for six days!
"Plaintiff chose that location to stand specifically to express her opinion that the sight of women's breasts is not dangerous to children, and that claims of 'protecting' children from toplessness were misplaced," her recently filed complaint against the NYPD states.
But that's not all. According to the report on CourthouseNews.com, "[a]fter she appeared topless at the Bronx Day Parade on May 20, 2012, police sent her for evaluation at Montefiore Hospital, where she was handcuffed to a bed for 'an extended period of time,'" and later, "NYPD officers sent her to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital for being topless in front of a Hooters restaurant in Midtown Manhattan."
So, yep, she's suing—and if the city's legal department has any sense, they'll try for a quick settlement, since it hasn't been illegal for a woman (or man) to walk around the city topless for more than 20 years.
Specifically, the case is People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, a 1992 decision by the New York State's Second Appellate Division, involving two women who bared "that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola" in a Rochester public park. In that case, the appeals court found that Penal Law §245.01, originally enacted in 1967 to "discourag[e] 'topless' waitresses and their promoters," was discriminatory in that it banned public displays of upper-body exposure for women but not for men.
"The statute, they [defendants] urge, is discriminatory on its face since it defines 'private or intimate parts' of a woman's but not a man's body as including a specific part of the breast," the appeals panel wrote. "That assertion being made, it is settled that the People then have the burden of proving that there is an important government interest at stake and that the gender classification is substantially related to that interest. In this case, however, the People have made no attempt below and make none before us to demonstrate that the statute's discriminatory effect serves an important governmental interest or that the classification is based on a reasoned predicate."
But sadly, that case didn't stop the cops' harassment, etc. of Van Voast, so she's filed suit against the city, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and dozens of police officers in U.S. District Court in Manhattan—and her attorneys are prominent civil rights attorneys Ron Kuby and Katherine Rosenfeld.
So not only does Van Voast have an excellent chance of winning the suit (or a large settlement in lieu of a trial), but recently, the NYPD has taken to reminding its patrol personnel during morning roll call—10 consecutive times since February—that "[i]f they happened upon a topless woman, they were not to arrest her," according to a report published in The New York Times on Wednesday.
In fact, the roll-call reminder was the result of a memo, presumably authored by the city's law department but which is in fact unsourced, that was included in Van Voast's suit.
"Even if the topless display draws a lot of attention, officers are to 'give a lawful order to disperse the entire crowd and take enforcement action' against those who do not comply," reported The Times' J. David Goodman. "Whether the individuals are clothed is not a factor in making a determination about whether the above-mentioned crowd conditions exist."
And it's a good thing the cops are taking this law (and Van Voast's lawsuit) to heart: Seems that, according to the website GoTopless.org, National Go Topless Day this year is Sunday, August 25—and you'd better believe that plenty of New Yorkers are ready to celebrate it!