If you are reading this, then you are on the Internet. If you are on the Internet, then it is inevitable at some point you came across a list of “dumb laws” or “whacky laws.” It has probably even happened more than once. Maybe a friend forwarded it to you, maybe you came across it on a website. Either way, you have certainly seen somewhere a list that includes laws like: “It is illegal to ride a zebra in the park on Thursday in the town of Somewhere, Somestate.” Today, a major news website has just put a story related to “whacky laws” on its front page, prompting this article.
Now, surely there are some dumb and whacky laws out there. There are also some archaic laws that might have been put on the books back in the 1800s, are now unenforced, and nobody bothered repealing them. Laws against spitting on the sidewalk were often drafted when loads of people in America used to chew tobacco. Tons of people regularly spitting tobacco on the sidewalks really made them disgusting, so the law made sense when chewing tobacco was in vogue. Nowadays, a cop probably has a little more to worry about than if Tommy hawked a loogie on Main Street on his way to Little League practice, but no one bothered actually repealing the law.
Yet, how can one explain a law against riding a zebra in the park on Thursday? It seems ridiculous. It is so specific. Why would a town in the United States have gone through all the trouble of outlawing the riding of zebras in parks, particularly on a Thursday? What about every other day of the week? Is it fine to ride a zebra in the park on Sunday, when it is likely there would be even more people in the park? Was there an outbreak of zebra-riding in this particular locale, necessitating the implementation of such a law?
The secret is that these lists rely on a trick called over-specification. For example, let’s say that a town passes an ordinance that no one may bring a wild animal to the park. It would probably be drafted in droll legalese, something like: “No owner or keeper of a wild animal or any member or species of the animal kingdom not indigenous to this State may bring such animal to a public park. Violation of this statute is a misdemeanor.” Well, that seems reasonable. It makes perfect sense for a town to ban folks from bringing wild animals to public parks. All you need to ruin a good picnic is some jerk’s syphilitic monkey causing havoc in the park because they wanted a pet that was ‘different.’
Ah, but an ordinance placing a general ban on exotic, wild animals in the park isn’t too funny. That’s not dumb or whacky. Banning wild animals from public parks doesn’t evoke a chuckle. So, the people who do these lists make it extremely specific. They say it is illegal to ride a zebra in the park on Thursday. Well, sure, technically it is. Technically the law does prohibit zebras from the park on Thursdays. It also prohibits zebras on every other day of the week. It prohibits zebras, cheetahs, lions, tigers, and bears, and every other dangerous pet someone might want to set loose on a public park. You don’t even have to be riding one of them.
So, the humor doesn’t come from the general law; it makes perfect sense. The trick relies on taking a general law and making it highly specific. The “funny” part is imagining some town council somewhere going through the trouble of specifically banning zebras, the riding of zebras, and particularly on Thursdays. Thus, the first thing to do when you encounter a “whacky law” is to ask whether there is a sensible, more generalized statute of which the “whacky law” is merely a specific example.
It is really easy to generate these “whacky laws” once you get the hang of it. Let’s try an example. It is a pretty safe bet that it is illegal to steal the property of another in Memphis, Tennessee. It is generally illegal to steal the property of another in any city. Let’s make that over-specific: did you know in Memphis it is illegal to steal someone’s Elvis memorabilia? There’s even an air of plausibility since Tennessee is where Graceland is. What a minute. Memphis is a big city. That might raise an eyebrow. Notice how these lists tend to use small towns? It must make the “whacky law” seem more believable. How about Atoka, Tennessee? Hardly anyone lives there, it has a funny name…. Did you know in Atoka, Tennessee it is illegal to steal someone else’s Elvis memorabilia? That’s better. Hahaha, those whacky Atokans!
Let’s try another. How about Ogunquit, Maine? Another small town, Stephen King is from Maine, in fact he used Ogunquit in The Stand, so it is automatically has an air of weird. Did you know in Ogunquit, Maine, it is illegal to intentionally destroy another’s model or replica of the Starship Enterprise? Wow, that sounds whacky! What about a replica of the Serenity, Millennium Falcon, or Battlestar Galactica? Well, it sounds funny until you consider that it is generally illegal to destroy someone else’s property anywhere in the United States or any other civilized country. It is sort of like saying in a given city it is illegal to murder someone whose middle name is Frederick. It probably is illegal to murder someone whose middle name is Frederick. Also, it is probably illegal to murder someone whose middle name is Andrea, Brian, Carl, Dorothy, and so on. That might be a little obvious, but it serves to show how these work: take a general, sensible law and over-specify what it prohibits.
Did you know it is illegal in California to shave a wombat with a butter knife? Well, most places have laws against animal cruelty. Shaving an animal with a butter knife sounds pretty cruel. The folks who make these up really like ones involving animals. Animals as a topic lets you pick whacky animals like wombats, zebras, and blobfish. Take a generalized statute like a prohibition on cruelty to animals, then pick a whacky animal like a wombat or giraffe and some goofy, but cruel act and viola: instant whacky law.
Did you know in Sturgis, South Dakota it is illegal to kill a whooping crane with a left-handed crossbow? It’s true. That’s largely because a whooping crane is an endangered species, so killing one with a crossbow, shotgun, phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range, or any weapon is against the law. In fact, since the Endangered Species Act is federal law, it is illegal everywhere in the United States to kill a whooping crane by any means, even Fujian White Crane kung fu.
There’s a perfect example of this at http://www.dumblaws.com/law/183
The “dumb law” of Canton, Ohio, is supposed to be that, “If one loses their pet tiger, they must notify the authorities within one hour.” Yet, if you scroll down a bit you see the text of the actual law which is just that the owner of any dangerous animal that escapes their custody must report it to the authorities within an hour. “If one’s dangerous animal escapes custody, they must notify the authorities within in an hour.” That makes perfect sense, so it isn’t funny. Using the over-specification trick though and making it a “tiger” as opposed to any “dangerous animal” is what elicits the chuckle. Again, it generates the mental image of a city council that is irrationally afraid of tigers. Ha, is there really a ton of people with tigers in Canton, OH, hehehe? Actually, the statute mandating reporting of dangerous animal escapes is an Ohio statute, not specific to Canton.
So, in closing, there are certainly plenty of dumb laws out there. No one can deny that. Results of bad social policy, special interest group lobbying, even just plain dumb or even archaic laws still on the books. There was the classic example of the city council of Aliso Viejo, California, which in 2004 had placed on their agenda a ban on dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) due to the large number of human deaths and billions in property damage the chemical is proven to cause each year. The ban was pulled before voting when someone realized that DHMO was actually water. Now that’s hilarious. Yet, that was a dumb almost-law. Just remember, when you see a list of “whacky laws,” keep your eye out for that over-specification technique and you won’t be fooled.