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Indecent exposure? ACLU sues Missouri town over public breastfeeding

An indecent exposure ordinance in Springfield, Missouri, is prompting legal action from critics who say it is sexist and too vague.
/ Source: TODAY

A new indecent exposure ordinance in Springfield, Missouri, is prompting legal action from critics who say it could be interpreted as banning women from openly breastfeeding children who are no longer small babies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of the activist group “Free The Nipple — Springfield Residents Promoting Equality,” calling the new law sexist and too vague.

Part of the issue is language that prohibits residents from showing certain body parts in public, but makes an exception for women who expose their breasts to nurse “an infant.” That worries women who breastfeed older kids.

The city adopted the law in an effort to ban topless protests, but critics say it can be interpreted to ban women from breastfeeding older kids in public.Shutterstock

“Ordinances like this perpetuate the double-standard that female breasts are primarily objects of sexual desire,” said Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, in a statement.

“If Springfield is serious about wanting to make their city more family friendly, they wouldn’t pass legislation criminalizing the breast-feeding of children who are no longer infants.”

The city had no comment about the lawsuit, but indicated lactating moms face no new restrictions.

The new measure does not affect a woman’s ability to breastfeed in public because a Missouri state statute allowing the activity without limitations trumps the local ordinance, Cora J. Scott, Springfield’s director of public information, told TODAY Parents.

“We are complying with state law,” Scott said. “The mayor has recently asked to refer the ordinance back to a Council Committee to review.”

Part of the reason members of “Free the Nipple” filed the legal challenge is that they are breastfeeding their children and the ordinance conflicts with the state statute on what’s allowed, said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.

“We are pleased the City now recognizes the conflict, but the problem is that the restriction remains on the books,” Rothert told TODAY Parents.

“So our clients just have to hope that citizens who call the police and the officers who respond will be aware of the state law and ignore the new ordinance.”

The controversy began after a “Free the Nipple” rally in a Springfield public park in August. Members of the group believe it’s a double standard to allow men to walk around bare-chested in public, while women cannot do the same without facing legal consequences in most communities.

For the rally, female activists showed up topless, with opaque tape covering just their nipples. Male activists did the same, though not required by law to wear the tape. The goal was to “demonstrate the frivolity of Springfield’s sex-based regulation of nipples,” according to the lawsuit.

After complaints from onlookers and concern such rallies could disrupt families trying to enjoy the park, a member of the Springfield City Council proposed to “enhance” the city’s indecent exposure ordinance. That stricter law, which was adopted in September, prohibits exposing body parts including “the female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola.”

A recent editorial in the Springfield News-Leader urged the city to repeal the new ordinance, calling it "nothing but trouble."

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