Topless protesters slap Missouri city with lawsuit over ‘decency’ ordinance criminalizing breastfeeding women
Protesters with "Free the Nipple" movement in Springfield, MO (Screenshot/KSPR)

A lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of two women challenges an indecent exposure ordinance in Springfield, Missouri that they say unfairly targets breastfeeding women.

The ordinance has been stirring controversy, and according to the ACLU's lawsuit, the way it's worded could render breastfeeding children over 1 year old illegal. Along with criminalizing the showing of female breasts, the ordinance also forbade "the showing of covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state" -- language that was later removed.

The ACLU brought the suit on behalf of the local Free the Nipple chapter, a group that advocates for women's equality.

"If I cause affront or alarm, I could get ticketed," Jessica Lawson told the Springfield News-Leader. "I try to avoid all criminal activity. I definitely feel that the law needs to be fixed."

The lawsuit says the ordinance violates women's rights to free expression and relegates them to "inferior legal status."

Even the city's own mayor, Bob Stephens, believes the ordinance violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment under the law.

“I think my reaction was, ‘Oh boy, we’re going to have to spend more time on a goofy ordinance, and a goofy issue that will go away when the weather turns cold,’ ” Stephens said to KSPR. “I guarantee you in February, nobody will be parading on the square without their shirt on. We’re spending way too much time on it. Now, because of a lawsuit, we’re going to be spending way too much of taxpayer money on it, probably to be told we were wrong in passing the ordinance to start with.”

Lawson, who is one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the law unfairly targets women. Aside from the lawsuit, activists held a bare-chested protest -- with nipples covered to stay in compliance with the law --  in response.

"We definitely feel like we accomplished our goal with the first protest," Lawson said. "It was to draw attention to the gender-biased law."

The ordinance currently renders illegal exposure of "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," according to the ACLU.

Exceptions include, "performances of adult entertainment” and “exposure of the female breast necessarily incident to breast-feeding an infant."

The ACLU notes that "infant" usually means children 12 months and younger.

As of yet, the city hasn't cited anyone. So Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer told the Associated Press he doesn't believe the lawsuit has any standing. But city officials don't seem surprised by it.

"Challenges to indecent exposure laws under the disguise of First and 14th amendment protections have repeatedly been rejected by the courts," City Councilman Justin Burnett, who initially proposed the ordinance, told the AP. "Repealing this law would subject families to public nudity, jeopardize our local economy and is blatantly irresponsible."

But Stephens said it was a mistake to pass a law dictating the amount of skin women can show in public while ignoring men, saying, "I think that’s probably a violation of the 14th Amendment, which is equal treatment under the law."