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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Free the Nipple Fights Missouri City Hall

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (CN) - Saying it wants to be "a 'family friendly' tourist spot, and the breasts of women undermine this mission," the Springfield, Mo. City Council has criminalized breast-feeding in public, the advocacy group Free the Nipple claims in court.

Free the Nipple - Springfield Residents Promoting Equality, and Springfield mother Jessica Lawson sued the city on Monday in Federal Court on constitutional grounds, challenging the City Council's toughening of a nudity ordinance, enacted in September.

The City Council rewrote the law after two Free the Nipple protests in August, during which "plaintiff Lawson and other men and women appeared without the top portion of their bodies covered, except for a fully opaque covering of their nipples," as required by the old law. "The women covered their nipples because it would have been a crime not to do so. The men covered their nipples, although not required to do so by law, as a sign of solidarity with women and to demonstrate the frivolity of Springfield's sex-based regulation of nipples."

The City Council responded by rewriting the nudity law, and approving the changes on Sept. 14, in a 5-4 vote.

Springfield, pop. 165,000, is a southern Missouri city an hour's drive from the tourist mecca Branson, in the Missouri Ozarks.

Free the Nipple says the new law violates the First Amendment, due process, equal protection, and conflicts with state law: It treats women differently than men, subjects them to an inferior legal status and criminalizes breast-feeding in public.

The old law defined an Offense Against Morals as "the showing of the human male or female genitals, or pubic area, or the middle third of the buttocks, measured vertically, with less than a fully opaque covering, the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple, or the showing of covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state."

The new law expanded the definition making it a crime of indecent exposure or conduct when the female breast is exposed "at a point immediately above the top of the areola" when it is "likely to cause affront or alarm."

The ordinance makes an exception for nipple exposure during "performances of adult entertainment."

"The City Council advanced three reasons for its new regulation of women," the complaint states:

"a. Springfield has worked to be a 'family friendly' tourist spot, and the breasts of women undermine this mission;

"b. Protests might have underage participants and, should any of those underage participants be girls that reveal a portion of their breasts, someone might take a picture and show it to others, intentionally or accidentally disseminating child pornography; and

"c. The city has an interest in ensuring that protests do not offend residents."

In its lawsuit, Free the Nipple says: "The reasons advanced by the City Council demonstrate that the ordinance's purpose is to perpetuate stereotypes about girls and women and is a response to the council's apparent view that the breasts of women are primarily objects of sexual desire."

Lawson, who is breast-feeding her child, "must choose between risking arrest and imprisonment" or forego breastfeeding her baby, who is more than a year old, and therefore not considered an "infant" by government definitions. Expressing breast milk would expose the forbidden region beyond "top of the areola."

The lawsuit says that by exempting certain exposure "necessarily incident" to breast-feeding infants, the law "makes clear that it does not exempt expression of breast milk or the breast-feeding of non-infant children." So breast-feeding Lawson's child, who is older than 1, would not be exempted.

Free the Nipple was formed as an unincorporated association to protest the old law, which also criminalized behavior by girls and women that was legal for men and boys.

In the protests at a downtown park, on Aug. 7 and 23, roughly 70 men and women marched shirtless - nipples covered - while a band blasted a cover of Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law."

In response, City Councilman Justin Burnett sponsored the new law, to shield residents and visitors to Springfield from nipples.

"Ordinances like this perpetuate the double standard that female breasts are primarily objects of sexual desire," said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU-Missouri.

"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, while allowing women to expose their entire breasts for the purpose of adult entertainment."

Burnett said at public hearings on the new law that Free the Nipple's peaceful protest caused affront and alarm.

But Free the Nipple says it will hold more peaceful protests to challenge the "double standards, hypocrisies, and sexualization of women that supports laws and policies that treat women as inferior to men."

Springfield officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Free the Nipple seeks declaratory judgment that the law is unconstitutional, and an injunction against its enforcement.

Its lead counsel is Anthony Rothert with the ACLU of Missouri.

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