By Jake New at Inside Higher Ed
Officials at Henderson State University on Friday defended the university’s decision to ban “sagging pants” on campus, amid concerns from students that the ban targeted black students.
While the Arkansas university does not ban any articles of clothing or style of dress in its official dress code, Henderson State employees recently posted signs in the student center stating that profanity, excessive loudness, rude behavior and sagging pants would “not be tolerated.”
“Posting the signs was a response to increasing concerns expressed over the past year by students, faculty, staff and community members about appropriate behavior across our campus, both in and out of the classroom,” Tonya Smith, a university spokeswoman, said. “Our faculty in particular had experienced an increase in inappropriate classroom behaviors that were disturbing the learning environment.”
After the signs were posted, some students complained that including “sagging pants” on the list was unfair to black students, as the style is often associated with African-Americans. “It’s politically insensitive to certain groups,” Kristin Bell, a Henderson student, told the local ABC News affiliate. “They felt like they were being targeted.”
In recent years, a number of states and cities have created laws and ordinances banning sagging or baggy pants. The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union have both criticized such bans, noting that they stifle free expression and disproportionately affect young black men.
Several cities in Louisiana have sagging-pants bans that carry with them $150 fines or 15 days in jail. Last year, residents of Ocala, Fla., were barred from wearing pants that fall two inches below the waist. Those who violate the ban face a $500 fine. In 2011, Arkansas, where Henderson State is located, passed legislation banning the style in K-12 schools. The law does not cover public colleges and universities.
Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that banning sagging pants on a public campus is “presumptively unconstitutional.”
“Absent some kind of showing that sagging pants could somehow disrupt the educational environment in a clearly, truly unreasonable way, which is hard to fathom, this is a blatant overreach by the administration,” Creeley said. “It’s dismaying that a public institution of higher education wants to treat their students as if they are in grade school.”
The bans on profanity and rude behavior were also concerning, Creeley noted, adding that the university was “really going for the trifecta.”
In a message sent to students last week, Henderson State said it did not intend to “specifically target” any groups on campus. The signs were taken down, and the university said it should have communicated with students about the “larger context” of the signs before posting them.
University officials said Friday that even though the signs are now gone, they still expect students to follow the rules that were posted.
“We have removed the signs,” the university stated in its message to students. “However, we remain committed to supporting campus and classroom environments conductive to learning and respect for all members of our community.”