Scholars say saggy pants ban may not be constitutional
By CHERYL WITTENAUER
Associated Press Writer
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Call her old-fashioned, but Mary Gray doesn’t want too much access to other people’s underwear.
"I’m from the old school," Gray said of the saggy pants ban she helped enact last month in Pine Lawn, Mo. "You got to leave something for the imagination."
Besides, the 67-year-old alderwoman said, "I’m tired of looking at people’s behinds. It just doesn’t look nice."
Pine Lawn, a mostly black municipality outside St. Louis, is among a growing number of U.S. cities enacting laws that ban low-slung pants.
Critics say the bans amount to government attacks on youthful fashion that some find offensive. And constitutional scholars say they may not be lawful.
"People have a right to express their identity through speech and action," said Neil Richards, a First Amendment expert at Washington University in St. Louis. "On the other hand, municipalities have a vague power to control the health, safety and welfare of citizens.
"The question is what is motivating these laws? ... What is so threatening about it?"
Richards said the ordinances seem to single out a form of dress popular with young black men and hip-hop culture.
Saggy pants fashion is believed to have started in prisons, where inmates are issued ill-fitting jumpsuits but no belts to prevent hangings and beatings. The look was popularized in gangster rap videos.
Benjamin Chavis, the former executive director of the NAACP who now heads the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, said in August his coalition would challenge the ordinances in court. He did not return several phone calls last week seeking an update.
Pine Lawn Mayor Sylvester Caldwell has said he began seriously contemplating the ban last summer, when developers discussed how the impoverished town could improve its image and boost its redevelopment potential.
He said developers specifically mentioned the propensity of Pine Lawn’s youths to let their pants ride low.
"I look at the future of a person and their ability to get a decent job," 72-year-old alderman James Brooks said. "It’s going to be pretty difficult if you’re not wearing your belt."
Violators whose low-slung pants or low-rise jeans expose underwear or skin face up to a $100 fine, and their parents could be fined up to $500 fine or serve 90 days in jail.
A number of U.S. communities have passed or considered similar ordinances.
Officials in Stratford, Conn., rejected a ban on claims it would be unconstitutional and unfairly target minorities.
Two years ago, the Virginia Senate defeated a saggy pants ban passed by the House, but not before it became an international embarrassment, said David Hudson Jr., a legal scholar at the Nashville-based First Amendment Center.
He finds it bizarre that cities spend so much time regulating clothing.
"I’m not sure what it really serves," Hudson said. "They should solve some real problems."
Besides possibly violating the First Amendment, Hudson says saggy pants bans raise serious concerns under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause guaranteeing life, liberty and property interests.
"This is an arbitrary regulation that infringes on individual liberty," he said. "Applying this outside of a public school environment is simply beyond the realm of proper government regulation."
Robert Harris, a gang expert and consultant who worked for 20 years in federal prisons, said gang members often use saggy pants to conceal weapons and drugs.
"That’s a concern, but I don’t know how effective an ordinance would be," he said. "It’s also a pretty big fashion thing among kids. There are thousands of teens who wear them who are not involved in criminal activity."