Arkansas Passes a Bill That Cracks Down On People With Tattoos, Piercings, and Body Art


Last March, the Arkansas State Senate voted 26 to 4 in favor of SB 387, a bill limiting tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body art that it deemed "untraditional."

After making several modifications, the State's House of Representatives has started to coalesce behind a compromise measure (which can be seen here) that could, plausibly, be sent to the governor's desk to be signed into law. Because of its vague wording, it's difficult to construe exactly which procedures would be "limited" or outright banned. While the bill only specifically proscribes dermal implants, its language regarding tattoos is ambiguous enough that some pundits have expressed concern it could be interpreted more broadly.

Where does one even begin?

Let's start with the obvious: This measure is flagrantly unconstitutional. Not only does our founding document say nothing about allowing the state to control what its citizens do with its bodies, but the First Amendment clearly prohibits government efforts at "abridging the freedom of speech," which our courts have repeatedly found includes forms of artistic expression like corporal modification. Indeed, the two main arguments used to support this ban — i.e., that it's immoral and/or unhealthy — can be neatly rebutted with a particularly fitting observation from Thomas Jefferson:

"The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others."

Beneath these fundamental questions involving the protection of our basic freedoms, however, there is another great issue at play — namely, the social stigma that continues to be associated to non-traditional lifestyles.

A good chunk of the culture war that rages in this country today traces back to the odium attached to the unorthodox, be it chosen (such as body modification) or innate (such as sexual preferences). The most apparent front in this war, the political one, tends to manifest itself in either (a) conservative efforts to limit the rights and increase the ostracization of those who are unorthodox and/or (b) liberal and libertarian efforts to protect those rights that already exist and acquire them for groups that currently lack them (e.g., homosexuals). Given the attitudes of Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers on these issues, as demonstrated above, it is easy enough to conceive of a path to victory here.

Winning the other front of the culture war, however — the one involving prevailing social attitudes — is a good deal trickier. While the arm of the law can do its job by preventing discrimination and resisting efforts by intolerant groups to impose their moral values on others, it cannot force society to accept what it has grown accustomed to scorn, even if its rejection is born of prejudice. No statute can protect people with tattoos and piercings from facing snap judgments about their character when applying for jobs, dealing with authority figures, or even just interacting with ordinary strangers in their day-to-day lives. For those changes to be made, a broader and deeper recognition needs to occur throughout our society, one that would effect not only fans of body art but everyone whose lifestyles, by choice or otherwise, deviate from normative bounds.

It would involve the adoption of a consequentialist philosophical ethic to our day-to-day social habits, of the idea that if one person's non-traditional actions or choices aren't forcing harm on others, they should not perceived as grounds for disparaging their character. Not only would such an attitude make bills like SB 387 impossible, but it would strengthen the free character of our society. While fair and just laws provide the skeleton for a free nation, the lifeblood of liberty consists of the millions upon millions of interactions we carry on every day in our own individual lives. If we allow ourselves to harbor assumptions that curtail the freedom of others - whether by actively wanting them to be oppressed or perpetuating inaccurate beliefs that cumulatively and ultimately result in hardships being imposed on them - then all of the liberty ostensibly protected by the framework of the state will be soured down its very marrow. When that happens, outbreaks of civic anemia like the proposed Arkansas law become not only possible, but inevitable.

There are two steps involved in solving this problem. The first is already being undertaken in the various campaigns to stop local and national governments from punishing non-traditional lifestyles, from campaigns to legalize marijuana and end anti-gay discrimination to the movement afoot against Arkansas's anti-body art bill. The second, however, consists of changing the attitudes we carry with us every day. It can't be mandated by a law or brought about through a sweeping social movement, but it is equally crucial all the same. If nothing else, SB 387 affords us the opportunity to not only preserve our liberties as citizens of a theoretically free state, but to closely evaluate whether we create a free society in how we treat each other.

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Matthew Rozsa

is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in "The Morning Call," "The Express-Times," "The Newark Star-Ledger," "The Baltimore Sun," and various college newspapers and blogs. I actively encourage people to reach out to me at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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