Missouri Town Raises Baggy Pants Issue with New Prohibition

The people of Pine Lawn, Missouri, have always stood for good, old-fashioned values like hard work, decency and...no baggy pants?

Lawmakers in this primarily black community, a suburb of St. Louis, have recently enacted legislation to clean up crack from the streets, and that doesn't mean the drug. The new statutes outlaw exposure of underwear over low-hanging pants, a ban that primarily targets youths who dress according to hip-hop culture.

If the ban is successful, officials will have made sure that the Missouri state motto - the Show Me State - won't refer to underwear.

Officials who enacted the ban, including Mayor Sylvester Caldwell, indicate that the idea for the ban came up when developers wondered how the town could improve its reputation and raise its standard of living. According to Caldwell, Alderwoman Mary Gray and Alderman James Brooks, the message is about cleaning up a public eyesore as well as changing attitudes.

Brooks was quoted as saying, "I look at the future of a person and their ability to get a decent job. It's going to be pretty difficult if you're not wearing your belt."

According to the law, youths who violate the law face a fine of up to $100, and their parents could be fined as much as $500 or face up to 90 days in jail.

However, not everyone is behind the buttock-covering legislation. The ban is drawing fire from some critics who suggest that it may go so far as to violate constitutional rights. In addition to a possible violation of First Amendment rights, a ban on low-riding pants might also run into trouble under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.

In response to the new legal statutes, constitutional scholar Neil Richards is unsure if they are legitimate: "People have a right to express their identity through speech and action. 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?"

First Amendment scholar David Hudson, Jr., says, "This is an arbitrary regulation that infringes on individual liberty. Applying this outside of a public school environment is simply beyond the realm of proper government regulation."

An official named Benjamin Chavis of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network recently said that his advocacy group would challenge the ordinances in court.

Pine Lawn is not the only community or city to pass - or at least consider - similar legislation. In August, city council members in Atlanta discussed a ban of any kind of exposure of underwear, including not only baggy pants for men but also exposure of thongs over women's pants, as well as showing bra straps. A similar all-encompassing law was drafted for Trenton, New Jersey.

However, some communities have chosen to avoid any larger legal issues that might offset the small benefits of cleaning up the streets. Officials in Stratford, Conn. rejected a ban on claims it would be unconstitutional and unfairly target minorities. A similar ban was rejected by the Virginia Senate two years ago, and also in Baltimore this past summer.

Many critics wonder about a city's priorities when it comes to pants or any kind of clothing legislation, when impoverished communities face real problems with crime, drugs and other social issues. Singling out the pants seems to be focusing on the symptom rather than the actual problem. As Hudson suggests, "They should solve some real problems."

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