In 1992, Dave Kelman was 20 years old and working a food service job at a hotel in Las Vegas. He wore Doc Martens boots, then a slip-resistant staple among people working in kitchens. Wrapping up a shift one day, he spilled boiling water on his feet, and the scalding liquid got trapped in his shoes. The burns were bad enough to hospitalize him for 13 days.
Ever since, Kelman, now 45, has preferred to be barefoot. Having lived in the warm climates of Vegas and Jacksonville, it’s rare that it’s cold enough to require footwear anyway. On the contrary, if it’s so hot that the pavement becomes painful to walk on, he might be pressed to put on a pair of flip flops. But you can’t convince him to put shoes on to go to the grocery store or get a cone from Baskin Robbins — and legally, he doesn’t have to.
Kelman is so devoted to the latter point that in 2015, he established Barefoot Is Legal, an online group with in-person meetups dedicated to advocating for the legality of going barefoot and the liberty to do so. Along with barefoot advocacy, Kelman runs a radio station called Freedomizer Radio dedicated to “spreading the truth” and “defending and preserving our nation’s constitution,” which in practice results in a lot of programming on refusing vaccines and “fighting the New World Order.”
Though Kelman is at the head of the group, Barefoot Is Legal doesn’t have an explicit political alignment, or any goals beyond spreading awareness and acceptance of going barefoot (though you might occasionally see a meme referencing chemtrails). Nor are they actively trying to convert shoe-wearers. Instead, they’re hoping to increase acceptance around not wearing shoes. As their name suggests, their biggest gripe is that being barefoot is indeed already legal. And so, all those signs that read, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” mean nothing. Technically, restaurants and shops do have the right to refuse service to barefoot people, but there’s no legal requirement or health-code ordinance dictating them to.
The group has two components: a Facebook page with 91,000 followers, and a closed group with 17,000 members. The page has had some brushes with virality, creating memes promoting barefootedness that are shared both genuinely and ironically. The closed group functions more as a place for people to post photos of themselves barefoot in grocery stores, malls, driving to work, etc. as well as to share encounters they’ve had in which they were chastised for not wearing shoes, or were successful in convincing others of its legality.
Barefoot Is Legal also has a separate website where they sell annual memberships for $49.95, the perks of which include a laminated ID featuring a head-to-toe photo of the member (barefoot, obviously) and a statement regarding the legality of being barefoot. The idea is that when someone is told they can’t be barefoot, they present the card. “If you were to be confronted while shopping, the employee may be shell-shocked that you have an ID card! Also, if we want our freedom, we realize we have to come together as a unit and do things to gain respect,” the website reads.
“I got tired of people trying to say that laws exist when no such laws exist,” says Kelman. A few years after the boiling water incident, Kelman opened a small chain of comedy clubs. He called the Department of Health to see if there were any health codes about customers going barefoot. They directed him to his insurance company, who directed him to OSHA, who directed him to the fire department, who directed him to the sheriff’s department, who directed him to the Department of Health again. Nobody was able to cite any concrete laws, codes or rules about customers going barefoot.
“The fact of the matter is, you go into a Starbucks right now, nine out of ten customers are wearing flip flops. There’s really no difference. The reason people wear them, though, is because they want to go barefoot, but they think there’s a law or they’re going to be yelled it.”
This misconception likely started in the 1960s, when the “No shirt, no shoes, no service” sign was largely used as a means of keeping out minorities, poor people and hippies. Case in point: A HowStuffWorks article from 2017 quotes a newspaper column from 1972 in Eugene, Oregon, in which the writer states, “Hippies have taken over the north end of town, and the business people don’t like it. They have signs saying shoes and shirts are required — no entrance to bare feet.” He adds that these hippies look “indigenous.”
Elements of such discrimination remains, but today, cleanliness and safety are usually cited as the main reasons for banning barefootedness. So while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents discrimination based upon race, color, religion, national origin or physical ability, businesses are still within their right to refuse service based on things like dress code and personal hygiene, so long as these rules are uniformly applied.
A crucial promise for many members of Barefoot Is Legal is that were they to injure their foot in a place of business, they wouldn’t sue. In fact, the Barefoot is Legal site claims that since its inception, no one involved in the group has sued. In some cases, a lawsuit wouldn’t hold up anyway as going barefoot is a personal risk. If anything — and admittedly, case law regarding this is murky — being barefoot could be considered personal negligence and a breach of one’s own “duty of care.”
In the group’s mind, it’s all a moot point anyway, as it’s steadfast in its belief that being barefoot is exceedingly healthy. And in fairness, foot and ankle specialists say that walking barefoot can improve your gait, balance, range of motion and other foot mechanics. These improvements can, in turn, benefit one’s legs, knees and core. That said, going barefoot does have some risks. Long-term, not wearing shoes can lead to support issues like plantar fasciitis. Beyond the possibility of stepping on a sharp object, there’s also the increased risk of infections like hookworm, particularly in warmer climates. Recently, for example, a young man developed a ringworm infection in his feet after walking barefoot in the sand in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Myekah Beond, the Western regional director for Barefoot Is Legal, however, will take his chances. Like Kelman, he kicked off his shoes after an injury (in his case, one to his knee). These days, he doesn’t own a single pair — whenever anyone asks, his doctor wrote him a note to share with them that states it’s better for his body to not wear shoes. He currently works independently, re-selling collectables and making music. He previously worked as a restaurant manager where he was allowed to go barefoot. “It was a small town — everybody knew everybody, and it didn’t make a difference,” he says. His work schedule allows him the time to run the Barefoot is Legal hotline, where he takes calls from people confirming the legality of being barefoot or complaints regarding business that have been hostile toward barefootedness.
For his part, Kelman pushes the barefoot cause on his personal Facebook page as well as the pages for Barefoot Is Legal and Freedomizer Radio. Despite his barefoot advocacy being commingled with images that claim the hepatitis B vaccine is the product of a pedophile organization seeking to legalize sex between parent, sibling and other adult-child relationships (on Freedomizer Radio’s page at least), Kelman asserts that Barefoot is Legal is just about personal liberties.
“We’re not necessarily pro-Trump, we’re just anti-communism,” he explains. “We don’t mind what other people want to do, we just want our own freedoms. So yeah, of course, that’s libertarian. I don’t want to dictate to anybody that you have to do things a certain way, we just want to make sure everyone is equally represented. If somebody has $500 to spend at the grocery store, does it matter what shoes they have on? The answer is no.”