- Special Sections
- Public Notices
By DAVID L. HUDSON Jr.
First Amendment Center
East St. Louis, Ill., has a gang problem.
It may now have a constitutional problem as well.
Last week, Mayor Alvin Parks imposed a host of restrictions designed to curtail youth violence in his city. Among the most controversial — and likely unconstitutional — of the new rules is a ban on the wearing of royal blue or bright red clothing by men — regardless of their age. The colors are associated with gangs.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported on the efforts announced by Parks on Sept. 26 to tackle violence.
These measures include a tough curfew, enforcement of loitering laws with arrests and more police searches of vehicles for weapons, and the clothing rule.
The color ban — while well-intentioned — runs afoul of First Amendment freedoms. It is too broad because it restricts the wearing of certain color clothing by all men — whether they have any connection to a gang or not.
An Illinois appeals court invalidated an anti-gang measure enacted by the city of Harvard in the 1990s.
In City of Harvard v. Gaut (Illinois Appeal, 1996), the appeals court addressed an ordinance that stated: “It shall be unlawful for any person within the city to wear known gang colors, emblems, or other insignia, or appear to be engaged in communicating gang-related messages through the use of hand signals or other means of communication.”
The court noted the law applied to non-gang members and gang members alike: “The ordinance prohibits gang members from wearing gang colors, emblems, and insignia. However, it also prohibits nongang members from engaging in symbolic speech, which is protected by the first amendment.”
Parks’ color ban suffers from the same flaw as the Harvard, Ill., ordinance. And it goes too far in the name of law and order.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a scholar at the First Amendment Center. Hudson writes for firstamendmentcenter.org and for other publications devoted to First Amendment issues.