Loco Local Laws

“shirtless wandering syndrome”

   A longtime Montauk resident showed up at an East Hampton Town Board meeting held there a few weeks ago to bemoan the number of young people roaming about the streets and shops in various states of undress — bare-chested men and bikinied women who seem to make no distinction between pavement and sand. There oughta be a law, he said, against “shirtless wandering syndrome.”
    There is one, actually, in Southampton Town, where “no persons attired in bathing suits or garments commonly used for swimming or public bathing shall enter any store, hotel or public building, or walk or otherwise travel while so attired on any public street, road or public place.” The penalty is steep: a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 15 days in jail, though as far as is known no one has ever been put behind bars for deshabille. (Southampton, those of us with long memories may recall, is the town where, once upon a time, wearing shorts more than — was it three inches above the knee? — got you a warning, and on second sighting, a ticket. Showing up in justice court there in a tank top or shorts of any length is still verboten, though these days they keep one-size-fits-all skirts and shirts on hand for the underdressed.)
    Communities are of course free to enact whatever head-scratching local laws they want — in Ocean City, N.J., eating while swimming in the ocean is prohibited — though Marlborough, Mass., probably pushed the envelope last month when it decided to impose a $20 fine for cursing in the street. The police chief of the town, which calls itself the Cranberry Capital of the World, said the law mainly targets testosteronic teenagers who aim “profane language at some attractive female walking through town.”
    “The law is ridiculous, but the kids are also ridiculous,” said one resident.
    Most public profanity is protected as free speech under the First Amendment, and opponents quickly appealed Marlborough’s new ordinance, which is hanging fire until the state’s attorney general decides on its constitutionality. Legal authorities give it little chance of being upheld, however. While they await a ruling, the police might try washing the young offenders’ mouths out with cranberry juice.