Need a laugh? State Law Books Offer Comic Relief

 

Don't mispronounce the name of the state of Arkansas. It's AR-kin-saw by state law.

The legislature established the proper pronunciation of Arkansas in 1881, and it's only one of thousands of odd state laws on the books across the country.

Be careful, for example, not to hunt birds from an airplane in Tennessee; it's illegal. And don't think of trying to buy champagne or any other alcoholic drink in Colorado liquor stores on Christmas Day.

As 36 legislatures meet this month, lawmakers will be focused more on writing new laws than on ridding the statute books of bizarre or obsolete rules. But the dusty dinosaurs of the legal code--while good for a few laughs and even the basis of a board gameare a bugaboo for a few fussy statehouse watchers who want to clean the slate.

Erasing odd laws has been a life's work for former Colorado state lawmaker Jerry Kopel. Once a copy editor for the Rocky Mountain News, Kopel, 76, combs the Colorado law books, which now measure 34 inches end-to-end, and annually urges the legislature to repeal outdated statutes. Last year, he inspired lawmakers to get rid of a law that encouraged cities to build housing developments for World War II veterans.

"As long as I'm breathing, I'm going to be getting rid of obsolete statutes," Kopel said.

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who is to be a visiting fellow at Harvard University this spring, proposed setting aside every fourth year for reviewing, updating or deleting laws. "That way we won't get endless, obsolete laws piling up on the books," Ventura said in his 1999 book, I Ain't Got Time to Bleed.

Ventura's idea didn't catch on in Minnesota, but last year Nevada and Michigan did rub out some of their outdated statutes. Nevada repealed a 1969 law that made it a misdemeanor for anyone other than a barber to advertise haircuts. Michigan jettisoned a requirement that a horse- or mule-drawn sleigh must have "bells attached to at least one of the animals in such a manner as to warn foot travelers of its approach."

Antiquated laws are rarely enforced. Still, said Michigan state Sen. Tom George, R-Kalamazoo, "If you have laws on the books that are so outdated that they appear ludicrous, it can undermine people's faith in the law. And law enforcement always has the discretion to enforce laws. If it's on the books, they may decide to enforce it, and that may distract from more important things."

In 1998, for example, a Michigan canoeist faced charges for cursing aloud under a statute enacted in 1897. The obscene-speech law prohibited cussing or using vulgar or insulting language within earshot of women or children. The American Civil Liberties Union took on the canoeist's case, and a Michigan court struck down the law in 2002.

Odd laws long have had entertainment value. Even William Shakespeare poked fun at outdated rules in his 1623 play, Measure for Measure, in which a main character is threatened with death for violating outdated marriage customs.

These days, chronicling laws like Michigan's cussing prohibition has been a profitable hobby for Jeff Koon, who started a list of peculiar statutes as a high school student in 1998 and posted them on a Web site, DumbLaws.com.

Koon and fellow Georgian Andy Powell recently created "The Real Dumb Laws" board game and wrote a 2002 book based on their findings, You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant. A Michigan law that forbids tying an animal to a fire hydrant inspired the title.

Among hundreds of other doozies they turned up:

  • Forgetting to close a gate in Nevada is against the law.
  • You can't sell perfume as a drink in Delaware.
  • Wisconsin law prohibits margarine from being substituted for butter in restaurants unless requested by the customer.
  • Kentucky law requires that residents bathe once a year.

"It helps keep things in perspective. A lot of people are able to relate to these laws because these laws come from all over. Every state has dumb laws," said Koon, a University of Georgia sophomore.

Historians debate whether Arkansas' prescribed pronunciation stems from a "you-say-tomato-I-say-tomahto tiff" between the state's two U.S. senators. The diction dispute has inspired many tall tales, including that the law resulted from the statesmen's concern about how they were introduced on the U.S. Senate floor, said Steve Chism, a University of Arkansas librarian. The rhetorical problem is that Arkansas lies just down the Arkansas River from Kansas (pronounced KAN-sas.) The river, by the way, is pronounced AR-kin-saw in Arkansas and ar-KAN-sas in Kansas. 

 
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