Free Speech about Saggy Pants

baggy pantsHere’s what I think of saggy pants: they look like hell. I associate that expression with my grandmother’s generation of Jewish ladies in New York. It was strong language for those women. I guess my ideas about how to dress are stuck in the past, which explains why I haven’t changed the way I look for most of my life.

But saggy pants bring up more important issues than personal taste. Saggy pants, like everything else these days, it seems, touch our Constitutional rights.

Some outraged Americans want to ban saggy pants in public. If a community can fine homeowners for not keeping their houses painted properly, then why can’t it make people keep their pants up? The power to legislate dress code is already used across America to ban public nudity, so it’s not a big step to ban the display of undershorts.

Opponents of such a ban say that dress is a kind of speech in the broadest sense, thus protected by the First Amendment. The form of dress in this case originated among prisoners, many of whom are African Americans. So some also say that criticizing it reflects racist attitudes.

The most unfortunate recent development in American politics is that Constitutional questions cannot be discussed calmly. Too many people care less about defending our Constitution than using it as a club to smash political opponents. The sea of American public opinion has parted, with only dry land in the middle, where people used to have civil conversations.

Here’s my attempt at reasonable discussion. The call for a saggy pants ban comes mainly, but not entirely, from conservatives. They want local governments to expand their coercive powers into dangerous territory. How do you make saggy pants illegal without creating pages of specifications about what kind of shorts may be seen in public? What social good would come of harassing young, often poor men, who most likely are not at that moment on the job? And why do conservatives want to expand government to enforce their priorities, and then criticize liberals’ efforts to make government do more for our citizens?

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” In 1791 that gave us more freedom of expression than had ever been legislated anywhere in the world. Since then many countries have caught up in democratic practice, which is cause for optimism about how right we were then and where the world has been going since. I like our role as guides on the road to democracy, so I lean towards freedom, even if it is annoying.

And it is annoying, at least to me. I don’t want to see underwear on the street or in the classroom. I can’t imagine why anyone would use one arm all day holding up their pants. I see saggy pants on young men of all colors. It’s not about race, but about place. There’s nothing wrong with saggy pants, except when such outfits are worn in places where self-confidence, pride in the impression one makes on others, and seriousness of purpose are important. Prison fashion communicates disdain for these values.

Communities should not ban inappropriate dress. The writers of our Constitution did a wonderfully unprecedented job of balancing powers given to elected governments with the rights of voters to be free of government control. A clue to the motivating beliefs of the founders is that they first authorized the federal government to exercise a wide range of powers, and then made the limitations on government into a postscript. That balance has been adjusted many times since then. Only in 1925 did the Supreme Court decide that the First Amendment also applied to the states, and thus to local governments.

I believe in that balance, in maximizing freedom from government, while trying to use government to increase the welfare of all citizens. I guess that makes me a liberal, since conservatives have consistently asserted the power of government to limit all kinds of expression, while questioning any use of government to help Americans in need.

Steve HockstadtBut like conservatives, I am not thrilled about every new fashion that induces young people to scar and puncture and bare their bodies, shave their heads, or hide inside hoods. Saggy pants always make me wonder about how their wearer sees his place in the world. I’m open to changing my mind, however, to learning more about what saggy pants mean to their wearers, to hearing other people’s views. These days, such talk is heresy. If you don’t treat everyone who doesn’t share your pet peeves with disdain and anger, you’re weak, compromising, fuzzy-minded, and probably not even a real American. Guess that’s me.

Steve Hochstadt

Republished with permission from Taking Back Our Lives.

Published by the LA Progressive on October 20, 2010
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."