South Carolina town bans saggy pants: Can they do that?

Pants that intentionally show a person’s underwear have been officially banned in Timmonsville, S.C., along with nudity and pornographic displays.

Wayne Parry/AP
A young man wears saggy pants on the Wildwood, N.J. boardwalk, June 12, 2013. The New Jersey town passed a city ordinance in June that bans sagging pants on the Wildwood boardwalk.

The town of Timmonsville, S.C., (population 2,379), passed a bill five to one on Tuesday that bans “sagging pants, trousers, or shorts that intentionally display a person’s underwear," according to the Associated Press. Those who rack up three or more offenses must pay a fine of $100 to $600. The law also bans nudity and displaying pornographic material.

The law, which city officials say is a matter of "respect," raises questions about the line between freedom of expression and the government's role in legislating decency. Similar laws in other communities have been met with pushback from civil rights advocates.

Towns including Dublin, Ga.; Flint, Mich.; and Delcambre, La., have passed similar bans. President Obama called laws like these “a waste of time” during his appearance on MTV. “We should be focusing on creating jobs, improving our schools, getting health care, dealing with the war in Iraq. Any public official who is worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there.”

Jill Fields, associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno, agreed that a sagging pants ban is superfluous. In a 2007 essay she wrote for The Christian Science Monitor, she noted that underwear is visible in many forms on the street. Lace-trimmed camisoles, thongs, and visible panty lines are just a few of the examples she lists.

A sagging pants ordinance may, however, be more than extraneous; it may be a civil rights violation. Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote an “open letter” to Opelousas City Council in Louisiana in 2015 after it proposed restricting sagging pants. Ms. Esman called clothing a “form of expression protected under the Constitution of the United States.” She also suggested that the ban could instigate racial profiling because young African-American males are typically associated with the style.

In Louisiana, the state already had laws in place to prevent the exposure of genitalia and the display of obscenity. Thus, the letter concludes that the sagging pants law would be needless. “The government does not belong in the business of telling people what to wear,” Esman writes.

The stated purpose of the law is to maintain public decorum, and council members have said they aim to help young people “make better choices,” according to the Associated Press.

When the town of Dadeville, Ala., was considering banning sagging pants, city council member, Frank Goodman said in a council meeting, “I prayed about this. I know that God would not go around with pants down,” according to Alexander City Outlook.

“It’s about respect,” Mr. Goodman added. “Who is going to respect you if you don’t respect yourself.”

In her essay, Fields suggests that the question of sagging pants may be a more complex one and advocates some alternative options for productive change.

Those who support criminalizing fashion need to face the more challenging job of looking into the eyes of young people and dealing with the real problems the debates about these fashions raise: the sweatshops where they are made, the educational and career opportunities of the young men who wear them, and the conditions in prisons where the style supposedly originated.”

This report contains content from AP.

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