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Are they seriously giving fines for baggy pants?

The spirit sags. So do pants all over the country.

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. Prison, where baggy clothes help hide weapons. Down sag the pants, revealing – a vibrant garden of flowered, striped, checked and blinding-white boxers for public inspection. Along with expanses of skin most people don’t show.

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, and around the world, Louisville to Lhasa, Oregon to Ouagadougou, Eau Claire to Ulan Bator.

Like hip-hop itself, this fashion is years old and rather 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.

In Trenton, N.J., Councilwoman Annette Lartigue has proposed fines or community service for sagsters. Councilman Lincoln Green of Pleasantville has proposed much the same. In Georgia, Atlanta Councilman C.T. Martin wants lax pantaloons yanked under city indecency ordinances. Shreveport, La., will fine you unless you do the Tighten Up. So will Delcambre, La., as much as $500 or six months in jail. Dallas is mulling a ban. Debate is rampant. “Turpitude!” cry supporters (get it?). “Free speech! Racism!” cry opponents.

Clearly, some lawmakers feel they have nothing better to do. Clearly, they just can’t stand it any more. Clearly, it’s silly.

It’s also ironic. This, friends, is payback. Today’s town boards are peopled by many former children of the 1960s. They irritated, outraged and countercultured their own parents to a mama-no-more, and probably never thought (once they cut their hair, went to business school, and made a mint) it could happen to them.

It did. Such is the perpetual cycle: “This is a human brain … this is a human brain on the drug called youth.” Saggy pants with skivvies out … lower back exposed but not all the way … it’s the classic kid’s game of play-chicken-with-the-boundaries.

Deal.

To be sure, Saggy-pants chic is old-timey and ugly. It may be a sign that somebody’s parents have failed – but not always. It reinforces prejudices across races, generations and classes. And that nether-garment parade down the sidewalk – it’s few people’s favorite thing.

Real indecent exposure 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.

True, 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. 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. Pants Law Mania. 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. Drop `em.

The Philadelphia Enquirer is based in Pennsylvania.

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