Breastfeeding in Public is Legal in California, Right?

Recently San Diego, California (aka America’s Finest City) has been hit with some pretty obnoxious breastfeeding-in-public harassment situations.  While I assumed that most Californians knew that breastfeeding in public was legal in our wonderful state, apparently, most people don’t.  Even my husband, who is an attorney and married to a lactation consultant, was unaware that there was actually a California law that protected a woman’s right to nurse in public. 

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE????

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First and foremost, it is shocking to me that we actually need a law to protect a woman’s right to feed her baby in public, but yet, I must remind myself that most people think breasts are for fun rather than functionality.

Secondly, why don’t most people know that this law exists? 

Third, how is it possible that EVEN WITH a law stating a woman can breastfeeding in public, mothers are STILL being harassed for doing so?

What does the California law actually say?

According to California Civil Code, section 43.3, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present.” 

In laymen’s terms: a mother may breastfeed her child in ANY public space!

Are you ready to hear about the situation where a mother was harassed for nursing in public?

Hope you’re sitting down for this one!

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On January 8, 2013, Rebecca Garcia was breastfeeding her 8 month old son in one of the courtrooms at the Chula Vista Courthouse.  When her son started to fuss, the bailiff, Deputy Chong, approached Rebecca and asked what she was doing.  When Rebecca said she was breastfeeding, Deputy Chong stated loudly, in front of the entire courtroom, “You should be ashamed of yourself, it’s inappropriate, you need to leave and go outside, do that somewhere else private, and it is illegal to breastfeed in court!”

Rebecca reported that, “I felt embarrassed and ashamed because of the way that the Deputy was staring me down, so I unlatched my child thinking I should leave.  I did not want to interrupt the proceedings and I was so embarrassed and started to get very emotional. The judge heard the commotion and stopped the court and asked what was going on.  I explained to her what the deputy said and she said that I could stay. She also asked me if I had a cover, which I did, and gave permission to continue breastfeeding.  I was relieved to hear this from her because the Deputy was so rude and uncaring.” 

Unfortunately, Rebecca’s son started to fuss again, so she chose to leave the courtroom and breastfeed in a cubicle in the hallway, due to her embarrassment from the confrontation. 

This is where I hope you’re sitting down….

Deputy Chong followed Rebecca out of the courtroom and continued to harass her for breastfeeding in the courtroom, making many disparaging comments, including his opinion that she should be ashamed of herself.  At one point, Rebecca attempted to leave Deputy Chong’s presence, and Deputy Chong went so far as to physically block her way out of the cubicle so that he could continue the harassment.  Finally, even when Rebecca exited the cubicle, Deputy Chong followed her to say a few more disparaging comments, finishing with, “I don’t know what kind of world you live in, but it’s not okay to breastfeed in public.”

Following this incident, Rebecca filed a complaint with Deputy Chong’s supervisor.  The supervisor informed Rebecca that she would speak with Deputy Chong, but not to expect a phone call describing the resolution or any form of apology.

Again, how is this possible?  The fact that Rebecca’s right was so egregiously violated inside of a California State courtroom by a California State employee shows that awareness of this law is clearly lacking.

Fortunately, Rebecca decided that her story needed to be heard.  Following this incident, she contacted our San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition.  Katherine Doan, another breastfeeding mom who happened to be a witness to this incident, contacted me through our San Diego Breastfeeding Center Facebook page to see if I could help as well.  I was so moved by Rebecca’s story (as were all of you), that I knew I had to do something!  Plus, ironically just 1 week before I found out about this incident, I had written an article for Lactation Matters about how I planned to create change in my community for protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public.  Coincidence…. I think not!

Here’s what Rebecca and I have done so far….

We’ve contacted the San Diego County Courts to request a meeting with their executive officer to discuss the following:

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  • A request to place a substantial segment in the court’s annual discrimination training to educate their staff regarding the language of California Civil code, section 43.3, that states a woman can breastfeed in public.
  • A request that ALL San Diego courthouses display ‘Breastfeeding Welcome Here’ stickers.
  • A demand that Rebecca Garcia receives a formal, written apology for the actions of Deputy Chong.

Due to the publicity on our Facebook page, Caridad Sanchez, a staff member from Senator Barbara Boxer’s office, contacted me and was moved to action.  Caridad was appalled by Rebecca's nursing in public incident and inspired to help remedy this situation, as well as make sure that this doesn't continue to happen to other breastfeeding mothers.  Caridad and I plan to meet in the next few weeks to discuss how she can help connect me with state legislators to pursue an enforcement provision to the CA state law, as well as other possibilities to protect the rights of breastfeeding women.

It is my every hope that this situation resolves in a peaceful and compassionate manner.  I will continue to update this blog as more details and resolutions become available. 

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to make a difference:

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The more we can ‘normalize’ breastfeeding in public, or breastfeeding in general, the less common this form of harassment will be.