If only the kids from a music school hadn’t been been playing a concert in the Springfield town square when a bunch of women showed up and took their tops off.
But there they both were.
School of Rock, meet Free the Nipple.
That set off a fight, a progressive push into a conservative Ozarks haven.
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The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city in federal court, and late Tuesday the city fired back. Residents crowded into meetings, recalls are underway against the mayor and a councilman, and there’s more areola talk around here than of what happened to the Cardinals.
“What I like about this case is these young women standing up and questioning the way things are,” said Missouri ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert. “The answer ‘It’s always been that way’ is not good enough for them.”
Not everyone sees the protesters as quite so noble.
“I believe in protest, too, but you can’t take your shirt off and walk around in front of other people’s children,” said resident David Cort, who is helping head up the recall effort against Mayor Bob Stephens.
The incident during a First Friday Art Walk in August angered plenty of Springfield residents. Whether or not they knew the national Free the Nipple campaign was started to promote gender equality and end the sexualization of women, they were concerned that the sight of bare breasts would attract sexual predators and lawlessness to their city.
Shortly after the encounter, City Councilman Justin Burnett proposed an indecent exposure ordinance that would make it illegal to show the female breast “below a point immediately above the top of the areola” for the purpose of sexual arousal or to cause affront or alarm.
Burnett, 26, who took office in April, told The Star that his purpose was to protect women and children.
“Clearly, there is both a public safety concern and an economic impact if this issue was not addressed,” he said.
Burnett is now the target of a recall campaign. Katie Webb, a resident heading up the effort, said at a public hearing that Burnett “hasn’t grown into his big boy pants yet.”
“Thirty percent of children in Springfield went to bed hungry last night,” said Webb, who did not take part in the protest. “I think it’s disgusting we’re spending this much time protecting children from boobs.”
At the same hearing, the city attorney advised the council that a Free the Nipple rally in a public park met the requirement for protected free speech as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“God doesn’t care about the Supreme Court,” another resident declared.
In a motion filed Tuesday, the city asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiffs’ injury is hypothetical — no one has been cited under the new ordinance.
Free the Nipple activists say their goal is to be treated equally under the law. Why have laws that perpetuate the double standard that female breasts are primarily objects of sexual desire — Where’s the equal protection?
On Aug. 23, to observe Women’s Equality Day, “Go Topless” rallies were held in Springfield and many other cities, including New York, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. At some, police cleared the streets for protesters.
But in Springfield, the issue of gender equality evolved into a fight more about First Amendment rights of speech, protest and assembly.
The ACLU’s Rothert: “A city cannot target a protest it finds offensive by making that expressive activity illegal.”
Or, as resident Bonnie Tindall told council members at a public hearing: “This is nothing more than a smackdown from local government of a legal, peaceful protest. In a diverse society, no one is comfortable all this time. This is not a problem. It’s a sign of complicated people living together.”
Before the final vote, in which Burnett’s ordinance was approved 5-4, the mayor — who joined the dissent — slammed both sides.
The activists probably hurt their cause by turning the debate into one not about gender equality but public nudity, Stephens said. As for the other side, “If we believe them, the sight of a female breast, whether inadvertent or deliberate, turns men into raving sexual predators and they rush to a public restroom and kidnap children.”
The city, Stephens added, should have ignored the issue as other cities did.
“Free the Nipple,” he said, “is an issue that will go away with cold weather.”
It started on a warm summer evening.
On Aug. 7, as the sun dropped from the sky, a dozen or so students from the School of Rock played in the pavilion at Park Central Square in Springfield’s downtown district.
Jennifer Jester, School of Rock owner, said the band had been hired by the city about two months earlier. As coincidence would have it, the band had started in on Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” when the 60 or so protesters arrived.
The crowd turned to watch. Some smiled, some gasped. The band played on.
As high as the potential was for confrontation that evening, Jester said there was none.
“Everything co-mingled OK,” Jester said last week. “The kids kept playing, acting very professionally, and the booby people stayed mostly in their area.”
“Doing what they did was very rude. It was horrifying — but not much to look at.”
Jessica Lawson, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said some of the protesters did not know the youth band would be in the park that night. She and many of the others learned about the rally through their school, Missouri State University.
Lawson, 26, said she went because she’s a feminist and bothered by laws that discriminate against women.
“I think we’ve come a long way, but we still have these exposure laws in 2015 — really? I have three daughters and I want them to know their body is not obscene.”
Burnett soon crafted his ordinance. At the public hearing leading up to the vote, an opponent said a man with large, floppy breasts could walk around shirtless, but a woman with small breasts would get arrested if she did the same.
“Keep everyone equal under the law,” she said.
A supporter toted a Bible to the podium and talked about Adam and Eve being ashamed when God caught them naked. Another man said Free the Nipple protests amounted to live pornography — “For the eyes of lustful men, some of whom will end up in prison, and God will judge our city if this isn’t stopped.”
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU in Missouri, said that if Springfield council members were serious about wanting to make their city more family-friendly, they wouldn’t criminalize breastfeeding children who are no longer infants while allowing women to expose their entire breasts for adult entertainment.
Rothert said the new ordinance also subjects women to inferior legal status.
“This whole thing is based on old-fashioned, patronizing and patriarchal views: penalizing women for their own good.”
Meanwhile, the recall efforts continue.
Burnett said he was targeted because he is a “unashamedly conservative council member who regularly supports pro-family policies, low taxes and greater public safety. The recall is nothing short of an intimidation technique.”
Cort said the frustration with Stephens had been building since his support for non-discriminatory protections for gays and lesbians. The City Council in October 2014 voted to provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But a public vote in April repealed the measure.
Stephens was quoted in the Springfield News-leader as saying “being mayor sometimes means taking the heat for the whole council.”
The mayor’s vote on Burnett’s ordinance brought more heat, even though City Attorney Dan Wichmer advised that Free the Nipple rallies amounted to free speech and that the ordinance could get the city sued.
Council member Kristi Fulnecky disagreed, saying case law is unclear.
“Local lawmakers can make decisions based on what communities want,” Fulnecky said. “We have every right to make this decision as far as I’m concerned. Besides, the city gets sued all the time.”
According to Wichmer, federal courts have historically ruled that public sidewalks are a public forum. The government, he said, would have to have a compelling reason to ban such gatherings.
“Even Lady Godiva went nude to protest taxes.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182