Fifty years of clothing-optional sunbathing at this national park is being threatened by a campaign that nudists say smears them as perverts and prostitutes.
The park, on Florida's Atlantic coast just north of the Kennedy Space Center, has been a favorite of nudists and naturists since the end of World War II, said Frank Cervasio, president of the Central Florida Naturists Association.
Round One in the court battle between the nudists and park rangers was won earlier this year by the park, and a state appeals court is expected to rule soon on the nudists' appeal.
Tom Pitton, a resident of New Smyrna Beach, said he moved from Michigan five years ago because he considered it one of the finest parks for nudism in the country. Since then, Pitton said, he and other nudists have been harassed, arrested, even intimidated by gun-toting park rangers.
The lightning rod for nudist anger is park Superintendent Wendell Simpson, who has waged a relentless campaign to cover the sunbathers since arriving in 1990.
Federal law does not prohibit nudity in public parks. Simpson has tried to ban it on the grounds that it was harmful to the environment. His superiors rejected that argument.
Simpson has also tried to use state laws against lewd and lascivious behavior. Park rangers arrested more than 100 nudists and charged them with sex crimes in 1993.
"The park rangers were using Gestapo tactics then," Pitton said. "They really went after women and couples. If you drive off all the women, then the beach gets a reputation for just having a bunch of naked guys. It worked. For a while, there wasn't a single naked body on the beach."
But a federal judge threw out the arrests. Simple nudity is not considered lewd behavior under Florida law.
Next, Simpson enlisted the aid of the conservative National Family Legal Foundation in Arizona to lobby Brevard County officials to adopt an anti-nudity law.
The law has only been enforced at the park, with the exception of a hot dog vendor who protested by taking off her top, the Brevard County sheriff's office said.
The result is that nudists are back at their usual haunt, Playalinda Beach, in greater numbers than ever.
Simpson said complaints have increased tenfold since 1990, but acknowledged that virtually all the "public complaints" he has had came from park volunteers who conduct environmental education tours -- under Simpson's supervision.
Nudists said complaints from the general public were rare.