This week in boxer shorts

by Walter Pierce

Or, the quixotic folly of trying to legislate away urban culture by peeing on the First Amendment

The Acadiana Ladies’ Modesty League is at it again, this time in Opelousas where, according to KATC — see what we did there, KATC, giving credit to fellow news media when they break a story hint hint? — an ordinance bagging saggy pants will be considered at Tuesday’s Board of Alderpeople meeting.

Penalties, according to the report, include up to $200 in fines and 30 days in jail. Thirty days in jail, on the taxpayers’ dime, for basically showing one’s underwear. But don’t worry, ladies, your bra strap peeking out from your sleeveless blouse is still OK.

The KATC reporter notes that everyone he “spoke to in Opelousas Monday was in support of banning saggy pants.” We can deduce that no one he spoke to was wearing saggy pants.

We’ll stop short of suggesting this proposed ordinance is racist, although it clearly targets mainly young black men. Opelousas is, after all, to borrow a phrase from former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a “chocolate city.” The mayor is black. The police chief is black. A majority on the Board of Alderpeople is black.

But the insinuation in such ordinances is nonetheless that saggy pants are an expression of gang culture. Of violence and shiftlessness, malt liquor in brown paper bags. Blunts and Glocks. It’s easy to joke at Opelousas’ expense, as we did with Eunice and Ville Platte, which have also enacted bans on saggy pants. But it’s actually a pretty serious constitutional issue.

Here’s the American Civil Liberties Union from 2012 after its Mississippi chapter opposed a saggy pants ban in a county there:

Banning saggy pants in public is an affront to the Constitution and puts people at risk of being arrested for behavior that offends some people’s sensibilities, but is not criminal. The impact of ordinances like the proposed saggy pants ban in Hinds County will be far reaching: it gives police the opportunity to stop and search people, even if the officers have no reason to believe they have committed any wrongdoing apart from a “fashion crime.” They create misdemeanor offenses for innocent behavior, leading to a criminal record that could follow young people for the rest of their lives. Enforcement of this ban could easily lead to racial profiling, including targeting certain neighborhoods or areas, even though young people of all colors don sagging pants.

Government policy-makers have no right to dictate or influence style, nor do they have the right to protect themselves and the greater public from seeing clothing they dislike. In fact, clothing is a form of expression protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

A governmental body seeking to regulate content-based expressive conduct, such as wearing saggy pants, must show that a substantial government interest exists in regulating the conduct, that the interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and that the regulation actually furthers that government interest. The courts have been clear that government cannot ban speech simply because others find it distasteful. There is no evidence linking saggy pants to crime or public safety. It is true that the Constitution does not protect actual obscenities; however, while we might not like the look, the style covers as much as shorts or swim trunks would.

Let us all remember the mullet and the hi-top fade, hammer pants and leg warmers — all goofy expressions of youth culture that went the way of the pompadour. Skinny jeans and saggy pants will eventually follow. Rather than waste precious police resources on this non-scourge, how about we just wait it out?