Free the Nipple is a gender equality campaign created in 2012, after Lina Esco started filming the 2014 film Free the Nipple. The campaign argues that women should be allowed to show their nipples in public.
Some women have been charged with public indecency, disturbing the peace, or lewd behavior even where it was legal. One such woman was Phoenix Feeley, arrested for being topless in the state of New York in 2005. Because it was proven that the law was misapplied—considering female toplessness had been legal for nearly 15 years in the state of New York—Feeley was released and later received $29,000 in damages.
In 2015, the campaign received attention in Iceland and was supported by MP Björt Ólafsdottir, who posted a topless photo of herself, in solidarity with a teenage activist who had received harassment for doing the same.
According to nudity and public decency laws in the United States, New York, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Texas are the select handful of states that have explicitly legalized toplessness of both men and women in public places. Conversely, most states in the US note either explicitly or implicitly that any kind of exposure of the female areola is an act of indecent exposure and therefore a criminal offense. Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Washington are the only states whose laws expressly differentiate breast-feeding mothers from performances of "public lewdness".
Although most states prohibit women from being topless, New Hampshire does not prohibit women from going topless if men are allowed the same privilege, which is why areas like the Hampton, Laconia, and Gilford beaches have become popular places for protest. In fact, on March 9, 2016, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of New Hampshire voted 18-0 to kill a bill that would prohibit topless sunbathing on state beaches. Their reason for denying the bill was, "because passing the bill would guarantee the law would be challenged in federal court because it violated the equal protection rights under the constitution." In other words, the bill was denied because of its illegal attempt at limiting only female bodies.
It is not inherently illegal to be topless in the United Kingdom. In 2009, the Metropolitan Police of London told the BBC "it was not a crime to appear naked in public". Public nudity in the UK is only an offense if there is an intention to cause distress, alarm or outrage. In the UK, it is technically legal to sunbathe naked on any beach, and naked bike rides occur each year in London.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram prohibit any and all "graphic content" that pictures a woman's areola. Chelsea Handler, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Scout Willis have each received backlash from Instagram for sharing photos of their chests exposed. Willow Smith also had a post removed because it pictured her wearing a shirt with a pair of women's nipples printed on it, though the shirt itself was fairly conservative in cut. Some have even gone so far as to photoshop male nipples onto their pictures posted on Instagram in order to cover their female nipples. This is mostly used to make the comparison between the two and censorship. When explaining the need to remove nudity, Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom blamed the rating system of Apple's app store.
In 2014, director Lina Esco released her American feature film Free the Nipple. The film is centered around a group of young women who take to the streets of New York City as they protest the legal and cultural taboos regarding female breasts by way of publicity stunts, graffiti installations, and First Amendment lawyers. After shooting the film in 2012, Esco found it difficult to get the film widely released, motivating her to start the campaign in December 2013.