As the nation wrestles with difficult issues of race, violence, civil rights, and foreign entanglements, one community has yet another seemingly intractable problem to deal with: saggy pants.
Actually, as long-time readers will know, many American communities have struggled with the low-pants problem over the years. Just a quick search shows close to a dozen posts on pants-related legislative efforts in Tennesee, Michigan, Georgia, Louisiana, and especially Florida. Of course there are constitutional implications, such as those I pestered the Michigan ACLU about in 2008. But my consistent theme, really, has been to wonder whether this admittedly heinous fashion offense is worth legislating about.
Officials in Ocala, Florida, are probably also wondering that this week. About a month ago, Ocala's city council joined the fight by passing an ordinance that bans the wearing of pants that sag enough to show one's undergarments. Saying that its purpose was to "promote good morals, public health and hygiene by providing clothing standards which insure that the buttocks of any person on city owned property … is sufficiently covered," the council unanimously passed Ordinance 2014-44, which is just as marvelous as most other examples of its kind:
It is unlawful for any person, while on city owned property, to knowingly or intentionally wear pants below the person's natural waistline in a manner that leaves the person's underwear or bare buttocks exposed. A person's underwear is "exposed" if, when measured vertically, more than 2 inches of it is visible. The person's bare buttocks is "exposed" if any portion of the person's intergluteal cleft is visible.
It shall be presumed that a person knowingly or intentionally violated the requirements of this ordinance when that person has been notified by a police officer of the violation and requested to conform … and subsequently … fails to comply….
Well, there are a number of problems here, even setting aside the strange insistence that the term "buttocks" is singular.
First is the reference to a "natural waistline," which the council defined as "that area immediately above a person's hips." Although that's vague, I don't think it would cause problems in practice just because I don't think it's possible to wear pants above one's natural waistline and also leave one's underwear or buttocks exposed. There's really no getting around the fact that buttocks reside below the waistline, and that underwear has at least some relationship to buttocks. So this would probably not be an issue.
Second, while it is certainly possible to forget to wear pants—and I might as well take this opportunity to apologize to the Ninth Circuit—I don't think it's possible to wear them unknowingly or unintentionally. In my experience pants don't get on you by accident. The point is to punish the exposure, not the wearing itself, so the ordinance should say that.
Third, it is simply not true that the buttocks is are "exposed" if "any portion of the intergluteal cleft is visible." What you have there is exposure of the intergluteal cleft, not buttocks. I'm starting to think part of the problem here is just a fundamental misunderstanding of buttocks on the part of the Ocala City Council.
And what are we to do about thong bikinis, which expose a lot more than this and yet are not covered (so to speak)? Here we start to get to the real issue, which is the suspicion that the concern is not so much "decency" as it is a distaste for a particular clothing style, one that happens to be especially common among (though not exclusive to) African-American youth. That is the concern of (among others) the NAACP, which testified against the ordinance in a meeting Tuesday night, and told the council it would take legal action if the ordinance were not repealed. Witnesses also expressed a concern that this would lead to unnecessary confrontations between officers and young people, although I can't imagine what they're worried about there.
Also in favor of repeal: Mayor Kent Guinn. That may surprise those of you who actually looked at the ordinance and noticed that it had been signed into law less than a month ago by … Mayor Kent Guinn. But Guinn told reporters yesterday (thanks, Tom) that he did so by mistake. He said "he actually meant to veto it when it came across his desk. However, there were many papers and he mistakenly signed it into law." Sure—isn't that how we got the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act? Got a lot of papers here.
Reportedly, the council took no action on Tuesday but said they would consider "decriminalizing" the offense. At the moment, exposing any part of your intergluteal cleft in Ocala could result in a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.