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Fashion Police

A number of communities around the country have banned sagging pants. Can clothes and how you wear them really be illegal?

By Edmund Newton in Riviera Beach, Florida

One afternoon last September, then 17-year-old Julius Hart was riding a bike on a busy street in Riviera Beach, Florida, when he was arrested. His crime? Hart was wearing black pants that sagged below his waist, revealing about four inches of his black-and-blue patterned boxer shorts.

A few months earlier, more than 70 percent of voters in Riviera Beach had approved an ordinance making it illegal to wear trousers low enough to reveal skin or underwear.

Hart's arrest led to a court challenge of the ordinance on the grounds that it unconstitutionally violated freedom of expression and the right to due process. What's more, public defenders claimed that enforcement of the law had focused exclusively on black men. In April, a judge agreed, declaring the saggy-pants ban unconstitutional.

But that hasn't ended the controversy over the law. Riviera Beach, a beachfront community of 30,000 people about 70 miles north of Miami, is considering ways to rework its law. Meanwhile, similar laws remain on the books in communities in at least three other states—Michigan, Illinois, and Louisiana—and lawmakers in South Carolina and Tennessee have considered statewide indecency laws against sagging pants that reveal underwear.

When fashion moves from being merely objectionable to illegal, constitutional questions about freedom of expression arise: Can the government tell you what to wear?

The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't think so. "This style may be distasteful to some, but do we really think it should be legislated?" says Benetta Standly of the A.C.L.U. of Florida. "Our answer is no. We don't think this is in the realm of public policy. We don't think it's the government's role." Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is even more blunt in his opposition: "This is the kind of officious meddling in personal behavior that makes a laughing stock of the officials who do it."

School Dress Codes

But advocates of the laws say these measures are about enforcing public decency. The mayor of Riviera Beach, Thomas Masters, says voters in his city "just got tired of having to look at people's behinds or their undergarments."

Masters believes cities should have the right to maintain social standards, just as they can dictate the height to which certain trees can grow. "I think society has the right to draw the line," he says.

Matthew Russell, a lawyer for the city's police department, also defends the ordinance as part of a broader plan. "We're working very hard to improve the image of our city," he says.

While some communities are trying to crack down on what they see as indecency, school districts have become more aggressive in enforcing dress codes, as the courts have given them greater latitude in this area. Some schools have placed restrictions on miniskirts, long hair, piercings, logos with drug references, and gang-related clothing, including hats, jewelry, and certain colors.

Public outrage at particular fashions is nothing new—especially when the fashions are popular among young people. In the 1960s, there were outcries against boys who let their hair grow long and girls who wore miniskirts.

Lurking behind the sagging-jeans laws may be another issue—hip-hop style itself, which critics say is worn as a badge of delinquency, with its distinctive walk conveying a thuggish swagger and disrespect for authority.

Sagging pants began in prison, where oversize uniforms were issued without belts to prevent suicide and their use as weapons. The style spread to rappers and music videos, from the ghetto to the suburbs and around the world.

Obama's Perspective

Some say the recent sagging-pants prohibitions are racially motivated, because those who wear the style are predominantly young black men.

"We think this is part of a national trend that is criminalizing youth, and specifically African-American male youth," says Standly of the A.C.L.U.

At Julius Hart's trial last spring in Riviera Beach, defense attorneys asked Chelsea Rousso, a fashion instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, to testify about the sagging-pants trend. Rousso said the style has become mainstream.

As evidence, she displayed pictures of celebrities—including soccer star David Beckham, Zac Efron, and Britain's Prince Harry—sporting the style.

Even President Obama weighed in when he was a candidate last year.

"I think people passing a law against people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time," he told MTV before the election. "Any public official that is worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there."

"Having said that," Obama added, "brothers should pull up their pants."