MISSOULA — With freedom of speech on their side, organizers of Missoula’s first “Bare as You Dare” public bicycle ride have received their final permit, along with the official green light to hold the clothing-optional event.
Come Aug. 17, Missoula will be the latest city to participate in the “World Naked Bike Ride,” a movement launched in 2004 to protest oil consumption and “reveal” the vulnerabilities of cycling in an auto-dominated society.
While the event has grown exponentially in recent years to include 11 countries and more than three dozen cities, local organizer Nita Maddux is keeping a low profile on Missoula’s inaugural ride to avoid unnecessary controversy.
“I really don’t want to blow it out of proportion,” Maddux said. “I want to give people a chance to see that it’s not that big of a deal.”
Maddux’s inspiration for the ride began in Portland, Oregon, which has hosted its own Bare as You Dare event for several years. This year’s ride was held in June and hailed a “huge success.”
Officer Kent Scott with the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct said that aside from a handful of public complaints – which were expected – the rides have gone smoothly.
“Portland is a very tolerant city so, for us, it’s not a big deal,” said Scott. “There’s no vandalism. It’s not like ‘Girl’s Gone Wild.’ There’s no anarchist-type thing going on.”
Scott said the event has caused a few traffic mishaps from gawking motorists, making traffic control a point of police interest. Officers also staff the city’s MAX light rail service as thousands of bikers converge on the event, many scantily clad.
“That’s basically it,” Scott said. “The riders themselves, being naked on a bike, there’s not much they can do. Occasionally you have someone fall off the bike and get scraped, so you have to have medical stages.”
The Portland ride earned the Oregonian newspaper’s website more than 1 million pageviews in less than 48 hours this year, thanks in large part to a photo slideshow.
The paper’s coverage also went international. The Daily Mail picked up the story and quipped, “Porn to Ride: Thousands of naked cyclists gather in Portland for naked bike ride,” in its headline.
John Killen, a managing producer of breaking news at the Oregonian, said the event has been going on for years in Portland and the paper no longer makes a big deal of it.
“Portlanders have been used to it,” said Killen. “The ride itself, it’s a question of how much you want to show. The photos were edited in such a way so not to show any frontal nudity. They just assigned the people and shot what they could get.”
Killen said riders in this year’s event assembled at a new location – a park. Oregonian reporters went to the homes of people who lived nearby to get their take on the ride.
“Some were upset that the naked people were going to be out there,” Killen said. “Some didn’t care. We didn’t make a big deal of it.”
Missoula Mayor John Engen isn’t making a big deal of it, either. In a city memo last week, Engen said the ride is protected by free speech and would likely happen with or without the city’s permission, given the political movement’s momentum in other locations.
“Organizers have been thoughtful about their approach and what they hope to accomplish and are sensitive to the fact that some community members may be offended,” Engen said. “The city is not the arbiter of taste in this matter.”
State law is shady when it comes to “indecent exposure.” One commits a crime by purposely exposing him or herself in order to cause “affront or alarm” with an intent of abusing, humiliating or harassing another, or to gratify one’s own sexual desire.
Suzanne Greer, a criminal defense lawyer in Missoula, said state law is scarce on some issues, and indecent exposure may be one. In past cases, when women bare their breasts to make a political statement, it’s often protected by free speech, she said.
Engen also sees the ride as being protected by free speech.
“The purpose of the ride is not sexual, it’s political, and it’s protected by the First Amendment,” said Engen. “We won’t argue the merits of the event any more than we would the homecoming parade, the Wild Walk or the Day of the Dead parades.”
In Portland, at least, Officer Scott said there’s no political will to cite peaceful protesters riding bicycles for indecent exposure.
Other cities have taken a similar stance, so long as the riders don’t get out of hand and break the law.
“There’s not a criminal code specifically dealing with it, making it a crime,” he said. “It’s a non-event here. It’s America, free speech and all that.”