In 2018, Helena Howard was sunbathing on Cedar Lake with a male friend. Neither had a shirt on. However, Howard, who has breasts and uses they/she pronouns, was cited by Park police officers. Howard’s companion, who did not have breasts, was not.
“I was upset because it was sexist,” said Howard one sunny day in Powderhorn Park. “I don’t identify strongly with gender, so [being] charged with a misdemeanor for gendered reasons was really frustrating.”
Although the Park Board ultimately dropped charges against Howard, she embarked on a summer-long campaign in 2020, to bike around the city topless and encouraged others to do so.
Although it’s not something Howard does anymore—unless it is really hot out—other Twin City residents have been out and about riding out the summer’s unusually hot temperatures without a shirt. Whether or not it is legal is another question. The answer keeps evolving over the years, as government agencies and people question: ‘What is the point of covering up on a really hot day?’
Being shirtless in public is governed by state law. Although Minnesota Statute 617.23 does not explicitly say whether or not someone is allowed to be in public without a shirt. It does allow people to breastfeed in public. And those who expose themselves in a lewd fashion would likely find themselves in trouble with the law, with more serious penalties if they end up sexually assaulting, trapping someone, or exposing themselves to someone under the age of 16.
Local jurisdictions can and often do craft their own ordinances to regulate whether or not someone can appear without a shirt in public. While both Minneapolis and St. Paul prohibit indecent exposure, they do not explicitly prohibit or allow someone to be shirtless. Minneapolis allows local businesses to decide whether or not to require a shirt indoors. “Policies are often influenced by insurance and legal liability considerations,” said Minneapolis spokesperson Sarah McKenzie.
For years, the Minneapolis Park ordinance prohibited people from being in the parks without covering their breasts. After Howard’s ordeal, she/they worked with an attorney to lobby for changes to the ordinance. The Minneapolis Park Board changed the ordinance in 2020, by removing a rule that required people 10 years of age and over to cover their breasts, with a Park Board spokesperson saying city and state law already address the issue. Three Rivers Park District, which operates parks in suburban Hennepin County, did not respond to our requests for comment on how they handle people who are not wearing a shirt.
And although Metro Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority do not allow riders to ride shirtless, as specified in their respective codes of conduct, the Metropolitan Council is considering changes to its rules and is asking riders if the agency should even worry about shirtless riders. Metro Transit does not have data on how many riders were refused service because they did not have a shirt on. And people who the MSR spoke to did not report any issues.
Ramsey County has different policies in its buildings around whether or not one needs to wear a shirt. For example, its libraries require patrons to wear shirts. Hennepin County’s policy is a bit more vague. The County does not have a specific rule, however, they say they expect library patrons to avoid “disruptive behavior,” “be courteous and respectful,” and that the library is a “public place.”
“If a patron’s apparel (or lack thereof) contributes to a disruptive environment, library staff will engage visitors in respectful conversations about maintaining an atmosphere of enjoyment for everyone,” said Hennepin County spokesperson Carolyn Marinan. The county cannot make public data about trespassing related to those not wearing a shirt at their libraries because of state law.
Some think that it’s time for a change and that more people should be shirtless during the summer. For example, Charles Benson, who is unhoused, does not like to wear a shirt for health and climate reasons. “On a really hot day, I have my shirt off. I don’t see what the issue is,” said Benson as he sat on a chair on Nicollet Mall shortly after visiting the library. “When the sun is out, I gotta get as much Vitamin D as I possibly can.”
Kenneth St. Julien, on the other hand, believes being shirtless should be a fashion statement. “We were born naked,” said St. Julien as he wore only a jacket, his chest exposed, at the Taste of Minnesota festival earlier in July. “I wore a button-up before. But the weekend just ended [and] no one’s bothering me. Wearing [my jacket] like this, I want other people to feel comfortable wearing it like this as well.”
Transit riders can comment on how the region’s transit agencies can address those riding without a shirt at bit.ly/CodeofConductSurvey.