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Ugly law

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Ugly laws also sometimes known as unsightly beggar laws were a class of local ordinance enacted in a number of U.S. communities beginning in the mid 19th century. Advocates of such laws generally presented them as tools to keep "ugly people" - those who were "diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any other way deformed" as one put it, off the streets and out of public view. Such laws are the subject of a 2009 book by Susan Schweik.[1] According to her, the 1867 law adopted in San Francisco was the first of numerous similar acts. She notes also the practical difficulties of defining "ugly": What is ugly and to whom? How ugly is too ugly?

Schweik notes also a variety of local variations among the laws. Some emphasized prohibited specific behavior rather than appearance, others prohibited "idiots and imbeciles" in public places. A Chicago statute from 1911 banned unsightly portions of the body, such as like amputated limbs and specific types of birth defects. The concept runs afoul of a humanistic view of law,[2] and of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to Schweik, some scholars have argued that such laws resulted from a uniquely American aversion to deviance, Schweik, like other previous studies of deviance, disagrees. There is a large body of evidence that this is not the case from many other sources. Similar (and much earlier) local laws in continental Europe, Great Britain and elsewhere reach back long into the Middle Ages. At various times, these have included laws against lepers, beggars, mentally ill and mentally retarded persons, gypsies, Jews, vagabonds and many other groups and categories of supposedly "ugly" persons.

Similar laws remained on the books in many communities, but were enforced with less frequency throughout the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a growing number of disability activists lobbied for legislative prohibitions, filed court suits, and sought in other ways to overturn these laws. Also important was a growing body of social science research evidence and theory detailing the social dynamics of deviance, including phenomena such as stigmatization, and the humanity of those stigmatized.


  1. Schweik, Susan. The Ugly Laws (NYU Press 2009)
  2. M. Cathleen Kaveny (Spring 2005), "Autonomy, Solidarity, and Law’s Pedagogy", Inaugural Lecture Series, “The University and the Human in a Pluralistic Age”, Loyola University