The ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit yesterday challenging the legality of a Springfield, Mo., indecent exposure law that they say could criminalize breast-feeding of children older than one year.
The lawsuit is being brought by Jessica Lawson and Amber Hutchison, two residents of Springfield, and the local chapter of Free the Nipple, a group that advocates for gender equality. They allege that the Springfield law violates their First Amendment right to free expression and discriminates against women.
The law "treats women differently than men by subjecting them to inferior legal status and criminalizing their expression based on their sex," plaintiffs write.
Free the Nipple held two protests in August that involved women baring their chests but covering their nipples with tape, which was legal under a previous law. In response, the Springfield City Council passed a new ordinance last month making it a crime to show “the female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola, for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification or which is likely to cause affront or alarm.”
The law exempts "performances of adult entertainment" and "breast-feeding an infant." But state law defines infant as a child younger than one year old, so the law could criminalize breast-feeding any child older than one, ACLU spokesperson Diane Balogh told me.
The lawsuit, which was first reported by the Springfield News-Leader, also alleges that the law is clear gender discrimination:
The Springfield ordinance was discriminatory against girls and women by making it a crime to show their nipples in any place where they might be viewed by others while allowing boys and men to show their nipples at any time or place without fear of arrest or prosecution.
The law also allows men to show their “covered genitals in a discernibly turgid state.” (Ed. Note: Turgid (adj.): swollen and distended or congested.)
When it passed the law, the city council noted that allowing topless protests could affect the city's reputation as a "family-friendly" tourism spot and that protests could offend residents.
But banning breastfeeding for older kids doesn't feel family-friendly to Lawson, one of the plaintiffs. "It feels like I'm committing a crime when my daughter's supposed to eat," she told me. Her daughter Xena is 16 months old, and now when she needs to breastfeed her, Lawson goes into her car and tries to cover herself with her shirt.
"There's this stigma about breastfeeding in general—people tell you to cover up or give you dirty looks or just whisper and point," Lawson said. "I don't want to make trouble…but it's not fair."
Justin Burnett, the city council member who wrote the law, is currently facing a recall effort by Lawson and other activists angry with the law. Elected earlier this year, he ran a campaign based on "family values and morality," local TV channel KY3 reported.
"I'm saddened they decided to protest downtown in a topless way that offended so many families," Burnett told the station. He didn't respond to a request for comment from Fusion.
Since she's started speaking out about the law, Lawson said that she has had people tell her "don't come crying to me if you're raped."
"It was crazy," she said. "I don't think there should be any discrimination by gender."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.