What Happened When a Judge Told a Woman Not to Breastfeed in Court

April 14th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Stephanie Rhodus, a 25-year-old mother, says she was simply trying to feed her son when the man in front of her ordered her to stop, cover up, and leave the room.

Rhodus is now speaking out about her experience in a North Carolina courtroom on Monday, where District Court Judge Peter Knight scolded her for breastfeeding in the courtroom. According to a Facebook post, Knight threw her out of court.

"My response to the judge was just shock," Rhodus told ATTN:.

In an audio recording obtained by local press, Knight can be heard objecting to Rhodus feeding her son. 

"Ma'am, you need to cover up," he says. "For you not to realize that is absolutely ridiculous. Step outside, and cover up right now. Stand up, and go, now."

She was in court for a custody hearing over an older child, according to the Washington Post

Stephanie Rhodus

According to North Carolina law, public breastfeeding is permitted in most cases.

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother's breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding."

Breastfeeding advocates note that a courtroom is different than, say, a restaurant.

"I understand a judge has more control over the courtroom setting than a manager would over a restaurant," Valerie Vanderlip told the Citizen Times.

Even still, a judge's ability to regulate courtroom decorum does not necessarily override state law, the Times reported.

Stephanie Rhodus

Rhodus' story is just the latest in what has become a topic of national controversy, as women who say their bodies have been oversexualized push back against onlookers who take offense to public breastfeeding and cry indecency.

"A woman's body has been sexualized in our society to the point it is normal to see women dressed in a risqué manner, but even outside of the court room, women have been discriminated against for feeding their babies in public," Rhodus told ATTN:.

"Not only is it a natural thing, but it is recommended by most every health professional," she added.

The movement to normalize breastfeeding has found enthusiastic support among proponents of women's rights. But it has also garnered fervid backlash. Rhodus shared with ATTN: some of the negative responses she's seen to her story. Many of the worst examples have taken a viciously racist tone (Rhodus' son has darker skin).

Rhodus screenshot

Rhodus responses

Knight, the judge, said in a statement to the Washington Post that the problem was not that she was breastfeeding, it was that she was breastfeeding in his court.

"We as a court routinely accommodate women who are nursing, including while they are waiting for a case to be called in the courtroom," he said. "However, when a case is called and a party is participating in a formal hearing before the court, all litigants are expected to respect the same rules of procedure, decorum, and dress."

"That was the case here. If breastfeeding accommodations were needed, those certainly would have been made," he added.

Rhodus' story will be the cause of a "nurse-in" at the Henderson County Courthouse on April 19, according to a Facebook event. On April 29, women across the country will travel to their statehouse buildings to stage a national nurse-in to raise awareness.