Writer: America Should Lighten up on Saggy Pants

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John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer says sagging pants might be fashion faux pas, but America should lighten up.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we talked earlier about a strict new dress code at one of America's historically black colleges. Pressed Khakis are in, saggy pants are out. Now, there's a lot of emotion attached to the saggy pants debate, but commentator John Timpane asks, are those who have most angry about the sagging forgetting something?

Mr. JOHN TIMPANE (Commentary Page Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer): For more than two decades now, people generally younger than, oh, 45 have been wearing baggy pants. It's said to be an outgrowth of prison chic - prison, where you can't wear belts. Down sag the pants, revealing a vibrant garden of flowered, striped, checked and blinding-white boxers for public inspection.

From ancient Rome to downtown 2007, kids like to imitate thugs. No wonder, then, that prison chic met Bohemia, fed into gangsta culture, hip-hop and Skateboard Nation.

Like hip-hop itself, this fashion is years old and pretty played out. But town councils all over are arising as one, shocked, crying civic image and moral decay, seeking to shove through laws, lest saggy pants drag down us all.

Over in Trenton, a council woman has proposed fines or community service for sagsters. In Atlanta, a councilman wants lax pantaloons yanked under city indecency ordinances. Shreveport, Louisiana will fine you unless you do the Tighten Up. So will Delcambre, Lousiana, as much as $500 or six months in jail. Debate is rampant. Turpitude, cry supporters. Opponents shout free speech and racism.

Clearly, some lawmakers feel they have nothing better to do. Clearly, it's silly. It's also ironic.

Today's town boards are peopled by many former children of the '60s. They irritated, outraged and countercultured their own parents, and probably never thought it could happen to them - especially after they'd cut their hair, gone to business school and made a mint. It did happen to them. Such is the perpetual cycle.

To be sure, Saggy-pants chic is old-timey and ugly. It may be a sign that somebody's parents have failed. It reinforces prejudices across races, generations and classes.

Real indecent exposure, though, is something to punish. It threatens, invades privacy, can traumatize and disgust. It's morally wrong. The state has a legitimate interest in stopping it. But saggy pants don't rise to that level. Towns have the right to enact the laws they wish within the Constitution. Apparel laws, however, are not constitutional unless there's a clear indecency issue.

Surely, to criminalize slack slacks is to drag down the indecency line. That's the humor of it. Kids are testing that line without crossing it, because most kids don't actually want to be bad. They want the look. Laws won't get kids to stop wearing baggy pants, only the news that it's so last year. And only kids decide that.

Ugly is not actionable. Slovenly is not vicious. Irritating is not immoral. Still, towns all over want to issue tickets and fines. Not only are these efforts moral policing of the most boring, least effective kind, they're also small-time, petty, misplaced, and not all that American. What do you say we just drop them?

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MARTIN: John Timpane is an editorial board writer and the editor of the Sunday current opinion section for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now, we don't really know he wears his pants.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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