All new mom Brookynn Cahill wanted was a night out with friends, but her fears were realized when she was asked to leave a movie theater.
Cahill and fellow breastfeeding mom Juliana Valverde, both of Fort Myers, had looked forward to meeting up Friday with friends at the trendy tapas restaurant Cru and the just-released R-rated movie "Bad Moms" starring Mila Kunis at Regal Cinemas at Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers.
Through Facebook, a few friends had started an event to meet and to go out with their friends. Those friends kept inviting other friends until the group grew to more than 50 women. Forty-six of the women, including Cahill and Valverde, bought the tickets presale and chatted all week about their excitement of getting out of the house for fun. That all went bad in an instant.
"No one had communicated that children under 6 were not allowed in R-rated movies," said Amber Cebull, of Fort Myers, whose group had the cost of their tickets refunded. "We had breast-feeding moms with infants, one 4 weeks and one 7 months, and they refused them entry."
An R-rated movie means it's restricted – and younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. The rating is given for strong language and violence, nudity for sexual purposes and drug abuse. Regal Cinemas adds the restriction that no children younger than 6 may attend an R-rated movie after 6 p.m. The women were going to the 7:45 p.m. showing.
Listed phone numbers for the local cinema are directed to a answering service with no way to connect to a person. Regal Entertainment Group, in Knoxville, Tennessee, is closed Saturday and calls were not answered.
Cahill and Valverde, the only women in the group with infants, were singled out after they picked up their tickets and in front of lines of moviegoers..
"All day I had anxiety and was so nervous how she was going to be," first-time mom Cahill said of her daughter. "I was coming up with ways to say I couldn’t make it, but I need to get out. I have to do this and trust that she is going to be an awesome baby."
The employee told Cahill where to find the movie, then mentioned she needed to go to customer service because her daughter wasn't allowed in the show. They directed her and Valverde to "Ice Age: Collision Course," which had been playing for an hour.
"They made me feel like a terrible person for bringing my child," Cahill said. They slipped back into "Bad Moms," the babies sleeping. She said the manager caught up to them again and told them to leave.
"I think that they have a right to have their rules for their theater," she said. "But I think it needs to be a little different with the age limit. Young babies are sleeping and being perfectly fine. If our babies are going to make a noise, we know how to handle this situation."
Lawyer Gerry Olivo of Wilbur Smith Law Firm, and a friend Cebull, said it appears the company hasn't participated in any discrimination, in part because breastfeeding mothers aren't a protected class.
Valverde said, however, other patrons not with the group were accompanied by children who appeared to be between 3 and 5. She said she and Cahill took precautions, sitting on aisle seats, ready to head to the lobby if the children started acting up.
"They can't leave their child because the child doesn't take a bottle," Cebull said. "The option is to miss out, which is unfortunate. We were hoping he would be more flexible on that."
Florida is among states that allow women to breastfeed in any public or private place and exempts breastfeeding from public indecency laws.
Cebull and Valverde said the man they identified as the manager was unmoving, and once he realized Valverde was breast-feeding while talking to him, demanded she cover up. They said he also refused to let them talk to anyone higher in management.
"I am very modest about breastfeeding and, because of the fact I was doing it, I was even more embarrassed. I always have a blanket to cover," Valverde said.
Regal CEO Amy Miles told the trade publication CinemaBlend in March: At Regal, it's our job to provide the best moviegoing experience for our patrons, and we want to make sure there are minimal interruptions during R-rated movies. We best achieve this through controlling the number of children in these films.
"This is the type of the thing why policies need to be flexible," Cebull said. "When they are written, they don't cover every situation."
She said with the power of the 50 women in their group, they had hoped their purchases and willingness to monitor themselves would be enough to sway the manager.
As the conversation went nowhere, Valverde said she began to cry. That's when the other women took notice.
"I said, OK then, we're going to get our people out of the theater and leave,and you're going to refund our tickets?," Cebull said. "And he said 'OK'.
"And one by one, then four, five six, seven, eight started walking away," Valverde said.
Cahill said that's when she realized she was part of a "super awesome" group.
"I feel so loved by all of them and couldn't thank them enough," she said. "...We didn't just leave each other, we went and enjoyed our night in a different way."
Cebull said more than 35 members of the group walked out of the theater, and two-thirds of them continued the fun at Cantina Laredo.