The N.C. Mountain State Fair refuses to remove its rude sign

This is a tale of stupidity and arrogance. It’s about the stupidity of a decision made by certain public officials. And it’s about the arrogance of those officials to refuse to reverse that decision in the face of facts, logic, and the concept of treating all people with dignity, respect, and inclusiveness. There’s no happy ending to this story. Not yet anyway.

In 2011, after many years of treating all attendees with friendliness, dignity, and respect, the North Carolina Mountain State Fair installed a large sign at its gate reading, “Shirt and Shoes Required.” The reason for this unwelcoming sign, as I found out later, was as absurd as anyone could possibly imagine.

The fair put up a ‘Shirt and Shoes Required’ sign to keep out topless women

North Carolina has two official state fairs. The regular one held in Raleigh, and a smaller one held in Fletcher, NC, near Asheville, called the North Carolina Mountain State Fair. That fair opened in 1994, and from 1994 through 2010, they had no dress code whatsoever. During those years, I attended that fair many times, always barefoot, with never a problem.

When I attended in 2011, I was shocked to see a large new sign that had been installed at the gate reading, “Shirt and Shoes Required.” I was barefoot as usual and entered the gate without an issue from anyone, where I spent the day barefoot with no hassles.

I later emailed the fair director to see what was going on. He called me later and left a message on my answering machine in which he stated that since there had been a female “Go-Topless” rally in Asheville a few weeks before, they were concerned about women showing up at the fair with bare breasts.

His exact words were (saved from my answering machine recording),

Actually, the reason we put those signs there, I had many concerned parents after the demonstration that we had in Asheville a couple of weeks ago with the women going shirtless, and we do consider this a family event, and we had people concerned about that.…

What???

Posting such a sign for that intended purpose defies logic

I found the “women going shirtless” justification so ridiculous it’s almost laughable.

First, the “demonstration” he spoke about was a one-time thing that took place simultaneously with similar rallies in 11 other cities around the country, sponsored by the GoTopless.org organization, which holds these rallies in various cities around the country every year at about the same time. The chances of something similar taking place a few weeks later and at this fair in another county were practically zero.

Second, did they really think that even if another topless demonstration were to be organized around there and if they decided to do it at the fair, the mere presence of a sign would stop them? Not likely.

And third, if their concern was fear of women taking their tops off at the fair, why didn’t the sign read, “Women required to keep their tops on at all times”? Or simply, “Shirts required”? What do shoes have to do with it? Wearing shoes or not wearing shoes has absolutely nothing to do with wearing or not wearing a shirt or top. And wearing shoes had never been a rule or an issue at the fair before.

The fair director, after talking in his message about the “women going shirtless” issue as the main reason for the sign, then attempted to justify the shoes part of the sign by mentioning “issues with tort claims.” But he refused to respond to my later email in which I asked him how many actual “tort claims” the fair had had related directly to bare feet or someone going barefoot there. (I would expect NONE whatsoever.)

Also unanswered was my question of why wearing shoes was never a requirement or an issue before in all of the 17 years the fair had been in existence before 2011, and why it was suddenly an issue that year when coincidentally shirts were now required for fear that women might be removing theirs.

N.C. Mountain State Fair entrance gate, photo taken in 2010. From 1994 thru 2010, the fair was friendly and inclusive to all who walked through the gate - no rude, unwelcoming sign. That changed in 2011.
N.C. Mountain State Fair entrance gate in 2010. From 1994 thru 2010, the fair was friendly and inclusive to all who walked through the gate – no rude, unwelcoming sign. That changed in 2011.

This knee-jerk reaction to Asheville’s topless rally was clearly instigated by a few conservative politicians

I was never able to find out exactly who the particular person or persons were that came up with the preposterous idea of posting a sign requiring shirts and shoes for everyone at the fair as a method to keep out topless women. But a small minority of conservative politicians in Asheville was very vocal in its opposition to such goings on in 2011, and continues to be so today.

The annual topless rallies have been held in Asheville – and several other cities around the country – every year since then, drawing less and less interest each year. It seems a little odd that the organizers would have picked Asheville as a place for such a demonstration anyway. A woman baring her breasts in public is perfectly legal in Asheville (however unlikely) as it is anywhere in North Carolina, unless a locality has passed a specific ordinance against it.

Mountain Xpress published a letter I wrote about the sign

Shortly after my initial email exchange with the fair director, in order to further publicize this situation, I wrote a “letter to the editor” of Mountain Xpress, Asheville’s largest alternative newspaper. It was published under the title, “Topless-protest paranoia spreads to Mountain State Fair.” The comments below the letter are mostly supportive.

The fair director later clarified that there had never been a barefoot injury at the fair

Over the next few weeks, the fair director and I exchanged several more emails in discussion of the matter. I asked him if anyone in the prior 17 years the fair had been in operation had reported an injury to a bare foot. He told me no one had (which clarifies that his earlier mention of “issues with tort claims” related to bare feet was total nonsense).

He went on to say that recently someone had been injured when their flip-flop got caught in something. I suggested that perhaps he should then just ban flip-flops from the fair, not bare feet, for which there was no history of any problems at all. He had no answer for that.

The fair director told me I was welcome barefoot at the fair, regardless of the sign

Shortly after my initial conversation with the fair director, he told me that even though he wasn’t authorized to remove the sign, I was welcome to be barefoot at the fair anyway.

In a follow up email to him later, I expressed concern that gate personnel may not know I’d been given permission to ignore the sign in the future. I asked for that permission be put in writing.

This was his email to me on March 12, 2012:

Mr. Sands,

Sorry for the delay but once again I had to refer advice from our Legal Department in Raleigh. The decision is you are welcome to come and enjoy the fair with no shoes.

We will inform our Gate Staff & other employees to let you in and not bother you at all. …

Again Mr. Sands I hope you will come and enjoy the NC Mountain State Fair as you have been informed and assume the risk of the dangers and/or unpleasant conditions that may be present on our fairgrounds from time to time.

Thank you,

Matt Buchanan
NCDA&CS
WNC Ag Center Manager

I attended the fair for a couple more years, barefoot as usual

The next year, in 2012, I was stopped at the gate by security guards telling me I had to have on shoes to enter. I showed them a copy of my email from the director giving me permission to be there barefoot, and they left me alone. In 2013, I don’t recall for sure, but I don’t remember anyone saying anything to me as I entered barefoot.

I requested the unwelcoming sign be removed

I didn’t care for continuing to be an exception to the posted rule, and really wanted that sign removed.

The worst thing about such signs is not how they affect one individual barefooter on any one occasion, but the negative message they send to the public and every person that walks in the door. Signs against bare feet just reinforce over and over again to everyone seeing them that bare feet are bad, illegal, unhealthy, and whatever other negative connotation the public is likely to conjure up in its collective mind.

More details about the negative effects of anti-barefoot signs over the years can be read in my blog article,  “‘No bare feet’ signs are similar to the racist signs of the past.”

So later in 2013, I sent the fair director another email asking him once again to remove the sign, or if he couldn’t remove it, to please tell me who could. He told me to contact the attorney for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which has control over fairs in North Carolina, and gave me her name and email address.

I contacted the attorney, and her response was rather curt; basically saying the sign would remain and be enforced.

I wrote a letter to the N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture about the sign

In 2014, I decided to send a letter directly to the N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture, which I have copied below. (Note, all email I received quoted in the letter included the following statement, “E-mail correspondence to and from this address may be subject to the North Carolina Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties,” thus giving me permission to copy it here.)

February 3, 2014

Dear Commissioner Troxler:

I am writing to you to request your assistance in resolving an issue that began two and a half years ago at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair. I have been in contact with Matt Buchanan, the fair director, on several occasions regarding this matter, and recently he referred me to Tina Hlabse, to whom I sent an email several months ago. Unfortunately, her response was rather curt and disrespectful, and she has ignored my request for reconsideration.

The issue is that in 2011, the fair installed a large, very unwelcoming sign at its entrance gate declaring that fair goers must now be dressed in a certain way in order to be welcome and be admitted, “Shirt and Shoes Required.” Such a discriminatory sign never existed for the eighteen years the fair had been in existence prior to that, and I attended the fair for many of those years, each time while barefoot, which is normal mode of dress. After I retired in 2003, I decided, due to many medical issues I had with my feet caused by years of shoe wearing, to stop wearing shoes altogether. Since making that decision, not only have the medical and health issues with my feet disappeared, I have discovered a unique spiritual nature that can come only with direct contact with the earth and all that exists on it, and I will never wear shoes again.

However, this issue is not and should not be just about me. Not only does such a sign and such a policy keep me or anyone else who may happen to choose the same lifestyle that I have chosen away, the worst part is that the thousands of other people who are not directly affected by the sign see it every time they walk through the gate, and the myth that bare feet are somehow a “bad” thing gets constantly reinforced in the minds of everyone who sees it.

The ironic thing is that the sign that was put up was never originally intended to ban bare feet. It was put up only as a reaction to a female “topless rally” that had been held in Asheville a few weeks before. Mr. Buchanan in fact told me exactly that. It was some attempt to try to prevent, or at least have some legal ground to not allow, any women attending the fair from removing their tops in order to further demonstrate their topless “rights.” The fact that “shoes” was added to the sign was obviously based only on the irrational notion that a “shirt” requirement sign or rule must always include some kind of “shoe” requirement – even if there was never any circumstance, incident, or logical reason to institute such a rule.

To give you further details of why this sign is unneeded and inappropriate for a state fair, I am copying below the recent email correspondence I’ve had with Ms. Hlabse.

9/16/2013 email to Ms. Hlabse:

Hello Ms. Hlabse,

First, I do not want to in any way appear to diminish my gratitude for Mr. Buchanan’s understanding and respect for my unique situation and accommodating my entry into the fair with no problems.

The problem with the sign, however, is not about me at all. It is about human and civil rights; and it is about sending a wrong message to all the fair-goers and the public in general.

I know, and Mr. Buchanan knows, that the ONLY reason that sign was ever erected was due to the “Go Topless Day” rally they had in Asheville in 2011 and fears that some women might attempt to remove their tops while at the fair. He told me as much in his phone message to me after I contacted him about the new sign two years ago. That would have been a highly unlikely scenario, and as I’ve said before in other correspondence, if that was the concern, why didn’t the sign read, “Women required to keep tops on at all times”? Or, if the fair didn’t want to be that gender specific, why didn’t the sign read simply, “Shirts required”? Wearing shoes or not wearing shoes has absolutely nothing to do with wearing or not wearing a shirt or top.

Now, I realize Mr. Buchanan has strongly tried to justify the “shoes” part by claiming liability issues with bare feet. But apparently that was never a concern or issue at all in the eighteen or so years the fair existed before the female topless issue came up, and I freely entered, walked around and enjoyed the fair for many years while barefoot with never a problem or complaint from anyone. Was there suddenly a spate of barefoot injuries and claims the year before? Or was it simply the fact that someone thought if you ban shirtlessness (to stop those topless women), you certainly must also ban shoelessness, because they just “go together”? Such reasoning is just not logical or rational.

It would seem incredibly odd and inconsistent that any business, fair, or other public or private facility would require shoes due to “safety” or “liability” concerns, yet would freely allow certain types of footwear, such as flip-flops or other flimsy sandals, as well as high heels, for which there is documented proof as to their hazardous nature. Bare feet certainly pose no more risk than some of the types of footwear that the fair allows and that many fair-goers wear regularly.

To declare that “shoes” are required just seems fundamentally flawed, without defining exactly what is meant by the term “shoes.” Almost anything attached to or held on by feet nowadays is accepted as “shoes,” including flip-flops and other flimsy sandals. And there is clear documented proof on record that flip-flops are extremely hazardous, based on hundreds of claims and court cases on record (I have a list of those if you would care to see it). Even Mr. Buchanan cited a case of a flip-flop wearer getting his foot injured at the fair a few years ago. Yet I don’t believe you can cite a single case of anyone ever getting a bare foot injured at the fair. In fact, in spite of unfounded fears and assumptions to the contrary, there are practically NO court cases on record anywhere in the U.S. involving a barefoot injury in a store, fair, or other business where being barefoot is not otherwise the norm (such as a swimming pool).

But even if someone barefoot in a store or other business, or while attending a fair, were to sustain some injury to his or her foot, there is little to no likelihood in this state that the business or fair would be held liable for such an injury. That is because, as I’m sure you are aware, Ms. Hlabse, North Carolina follows a pure contributory negligence law system (unlike some other states whose laws are based on a comparative negligence system). That means that in North Carolina, and a few other states, if the injured party were responsible for the injury in ANY way – even 1% – no damages would be awarded. Therefore, the chances of a barefoot person prevailing in such a claim are practically nil, especially in this state. That’s because someone making a free will choice to actually enter a store, fairground, or other business while barefoot and then sustaining an injury would, in all likelihood, be seen as the party at fault – for simply being barefoot in the first place – and therefore responsible for that injury. Even a small part of the blame would render him or her ineligible to recover any damages. No lawyer would even take such a case, with no real chance of winning. I am not a lawyer, but I’ve done extensive research into these areas, and can see no reason, other than what can only be speculation, for the N.C. Mountain State Fair to have any concerns over this issue.

As I said, the sign is not about me or about how it may apply to me personally on any given occasion related to my own entry into the fair. Displaying such a sign raises much larger issues than the obvious unwarranted discrimination against certain people based on how they are dressed. Signs stating “shoes required” or “no bare feet” continue to reinforce the myth that bare feet are somehow bad. Many people erroneously even believe that requiring shoes (and/or shirts) is mandated by law or required by the health department. Nothing could be further from the truth. But such signs continue to cause this myth to be perpetuated. That’s the issue I have with the sign itself, notwithstanding the irrational assumptions upon which it’s based.

I hope you will consider what I have written above and be able to understand why, all things considered, this very unwelcoming sign should be removed.

As I mentioned in an earlier email to Mr. Buchanan, Mission Hospital in Asheville recently agreed to remove the same type of signs that were on two of their entrances. They realized that these types of signs are unwelcoming, arbitrarily discriminatory, and unnecessary. I hope you will be able to see this issue in the same light.

Looking forward to hearing back from you soon.

Kind regards,

Kriss Sands

10/14/2013 email answer from Ms. Hlabse:

Mr. Sands,

Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.  I appreciate the arguments in support of your position; however, being barefoot is not a protected class.  Moreover, it is in the Department’s and the public’s best interest to require fairgoers who choose to attend the fair to wear shoes.  In the future, this policy will be strictly enforced.

Thank you,

Tina L. Hlabse

10/18/2013 email answer to Ms. Hlabse:

Dear Ms. Hlabse:

Of course, being barefoot is not a protected class. Your implication would seem to be that the fair would be free and justified to discriminate against anyone based on such things as race, age, gender, religion, or other attributes at will, were those classes not specifically protected by law. Not being a protected class is certainly no reason to discriminate against those who would choose to dress differently from the majority, when there is no documented proof that that difference has ever done any harm to anyone or would do any harm to anyone.

Best interest is a very subjective and vague term. Could you please explain in more specific terms exactly what events took place two years ago which caused a decision to be made to erect the sign, specifically as it relates to the shoe requirement?

The sign should be removed for the following reasons:

              1. There has never been a case or a claim related to a barefoot person injuring his or her foot in the 20-year history of the N.C. Mountain State Fair.
              1. There are practically no documented court cases within the entire United States in which an injury to a bare foot is claimed in a place where bare feet are not the norm. And of those few cases, none were adjudicated in favor of the barefoot plaintiff.
              1. Even if a barefoot person got his or her foot injured at the fair, North Carolina’s pure contributory negligence laws would prevent the fair from being held liable.
              1. Since the chances of a person with a barefoot injury at the fair prevailing in a lawsuit are practically nil, no personal injury attorney would likely ever even take such a case.
              1. In this day and age, for all practical purposes, nobody goes barefoot in public. If the purpose of the sign is to keep barefoot people out, it is simply a waste of resources.
              1. Since practically no one actually goes barefoot in public, especially to a fair, and since the fair would not be held liable for some potential barefoot injury, such signs have no real practical value whatsoever related to their ostensible purpose, and serve only to perpetuate the commonly believed myth that bare feet are bad and probably illegal.
              1. If safety and liability are cited as the reasons to ban bare feet, it is completely inconsistent and illogical to not also ban certain types of footwear that have indeed been proven to be hazardous and accident prone, such as flip-flops and high heels.
              1. Where a business requires shoes – as opposed to a neutral policy in which it does not concern itself in any way with customers’ attire – there is reason to believe that the business or other entity (such as a fair) is in effect accepting total responsibility for any mishap that may be caused by those shoes that the business required the customer to wear.
              1. The sign was never erected for the purpose of banning bare feet. It was erected only as an attempt to prevent women from removing their tops at the fair in reaction to the “Go Topless Day” that was held a few weeks before in Asheville.
              1. Since the original purpose of the sign was to ensure that tops or shirts would not be removed, adding a “shoes” requirement was nothing more than blindly following a popular cliché related to always including “shoes” when shirts were mentioned.
              1. If the fair really feels the shirt requirement is important and a useful way to help prevent female topless demonstrations (or young men from removing their shirts on a hot day to the “shock” of other fairgoers), it could simply change the sign to read, “Shirts required.”
              1. There is no law or health department requirement whatsoever, either federal, state, or local, in North Carolina that shoes or other footwear must be worn by a customer or patron in any private or public facility.
              1. There are no medical facts that would suggest that bare feet touching only the ground or a floor are in any way less healthy or more likely to catch or spread any infection than any other part of the body. In fact, bare hands are the most likely to spread infection and disease.
              1. I am not aware of any other fair, state or local, that has a similar sign posted at its entrance telling fairgoers how they must dress in order to be welcome.
              1. In addition to all the other reasons the sign is not appropriate and should be removed, such signs are simply blatantly unwelcoming and disrespectful to the general public.

I ask you to please reconsider, and have the sign removed, so the fair can go back to being the friendly, accepting place it was for many years before 2011.

Kind regards,

Kriss Sands

To date, no response to my last email has been received.

Mr. Troxler, having reviewed your record of excellent service to the people of North Carolina, it is my hope and belief that you will look carefully into this matter, judge the facts fairly, and make a decision based on the importance and priority of our American ideals and values of human rights and personal freedom, as opposed to restrictions and exclusions of certain people, where such restrictions and exclusions have no logical basis in fact or compelling need.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon. If you’d care to, you may call me at [xxx-xxx-xxxx].

Sincerely yours,

(Mr.) Kriss Sands

The Commissioner of Agriculture responded to my letter

February 12, 2014

Dear Mr. Sands,

Thank you for your recent communications regarding our “Shirt and Shoes Required” sign at the Mountain State Fair. It is clear that this is an issue about which you are very passionate, and to which you have given a great deal of thought. I agree that the Mountain State Fair is an event intended for everyone to enjoy. However, sometimes when attempting to implement consistent policy, it becomes difficult to please everyone. Part of our purpose for implementing the shirt and shoes requirement is to not only limit potential liability, but to also provide consistent attire standards so that our many patrons can know what to expect when attending the fair. Our primary goal is to provide an atmosphere where families can come and enjoy all that the fair has to offer, and we feel that this policy is tailored to meet that goal. The policy is not intended to “pick on” anyone or to be divisive in nature.

Please know that I understand the sensitivity that someone in your circumstance would have toward the shirt and shoes policy. Also, please understand that I fully respect your decision with regard to footwear and the lifestyle you have chosen. However, I feel that it is in the best interest of the fair and fairgoers as a whole, for this policy to remain in place. Therefore, at this time, I am unable to accommodate your request for a change in policy. I hope you will respect and abide by this decision.

Sincerely,

Steve Troxier
Commissioner

I answered the Commissioner’s response with another letter

March 14, 2014

Dear Commissioner Troxler:

Thank you for your letter of February 12 in response to my request to have an offensive and unnecessary sign removed from the entrance to the N.C. Mountain State Fair. I’d just like to briefly respond to some of your points.

You mentioned that part of your purpose for implementing the new requirement was to provide consistent attire standards so that patrons can know what to expect when attending the fair. State and county fairs have been held in this country for centuries. I do not believe that there is a single person anywhere who does not know what to expect or how people are likely to be dressed at a fair. People in this part of the country have been attending the N.C. Mountain State Fair since 1994. Up until 2011, no one needed to be told what to expect or that they were required to dress in some particular way in order to be welcome. During that period, there was not a single incident of a barefoot person injuring his or her feet at the fair or causing any problem whatsoever. I attended the fair for many of those years while barefoot and never saw another barefoot person. It’s possible that I may be the only person who has ever attended that fair barefoot, though I don’t know for sure. In any case, there is simply no logical need for such a sign or such a restriction on any patron entering the fair, especially since it’s highly likely that I would be the only person ever directly affected by it anyway. Yet to the thousands of other patrons walking through the gate, that sign continues to send a negative message and perpetuate the myth that bare feet are very bad – so egregiously bad that a large special sign is necessary. It is arbitrary discrimination, not based on any facts or logic.

As to limiting potential liability by posting such a sign, that is simply not the case in the real world. As I’m sure your legal counsel will attest, North Carolina’s pure contributory negligence law for all practical purposes would preclude not only any damages from being awarded if such a claim were ever made, no attorney would ever even take such a case, with no hope of prevailing. Anyone choosing of his or her own free will to walk barefoot into a fair would be deemed legally responsible for any risks associated with such a decision, not the fair or other premises owner or operator. Not only that, if the reason for such a sign or policy is to limit liability, why are other risky behaviors or modes of dress being ignored? For example, there are documented cases of flip-flop wearing being hazardous – including a recent incident at the N.C. Mountain Fair – yet there is no sign banning flip-flops. You spoke about consistent policy. Banning bare feet but not banning much more dangerous footwear is not consistent policy.

If you truly want to, as you stated, “provide an atmosphere where families can come and enjoy all that the fair has to offer,” go back to the open and welcoming atmosphere of the fair prior to 2011. Families and everyone else did indeed enjoy the fair in those first 17 years. Now everyone cannot, due to your arbitrary exclusion of a few.

I am a native North Carolinian and a military veteran. I am also a loving husband, brother, father of four, and grandfather of four. I am well familiar with family values and standards, and support them. Your implication that bare feet are somehow not family friendly simply has no basis in fact or logic.

I again strongly urge you to reconsider, and remove the unwelcoming sign and policy.

Sincerely yours,

(Mr.) Kriss Sands

The commissioner again refused my request

I received another letter from the Commissioner of Agriculture in response to my last one. In a very brief statement, he refused once more to remove the sign.

Two years later, in 2016, I wrote to him again, asking him to reconsider. That letter was answered by Richard C. Reich, Assistant Commissioner, who again refused my request.

Letters to local representatives in the N.C. state government fell upon deaf ears

In 2014 I also wrote to my local representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly, Senator Ralph Hise and Representative  Michele Presnell. Hise’s legislative assistant replied saying they had no authority to do anything, and Presnell did not reply at all.

Mountain Xpress published another letter I wrote

In September 2014, after these various unsuccessful efforts to get the sign removed, I wrote another “letter to the editor” of Mountain Xpress.  They published it under the title, “Why I won’t be attending Mountain State Fair this year.” Again, the comments under the letter are for the most part interesting and supportive.

I will not attend the fair again until positive changes are made

Bare feet on rough asphalt at N.C. Mountain State Fair, during a happier and more inclusive time at the fair.
Bare feet on rough asphalt at the N.C. Mountain State Fair, during a happier and more inclusive time at the fair.

I have not attended that fair since 2013. The sign remains there, and since the Department of Agriculture attorney stated the sign will be “strictly enforced,” the fair director later told me that since I’d “made an issue” out of the sign, he now had no choice but to enforce it without exception. They also added a “Shirt and Shoes Required” admonition on their website.

The decision to no longer let me attend with my normal bare feet being based ONLY on the fact that I asked them to remove the unwelcoming sign (“made an issue”) is an example of nothing short of petty vindictiveness, not logic. And the refusal of fair officials to remove the sign and bring back the friendliness and acceptance of all fairgoers that existed for many years is nothing short of mindless arrogance.


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