By Kathleen Murphy
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; its illegal. And dont think of popping
a champagne cork in Colorado 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to repeal outdated statutes.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 Aint
Got Time to Bleed.
Venturas idea didnt 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last year Nevada and Michigan did rub out some of their outdated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 Nevada repealed a 1969 law that made it a misdemeanor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on the books that are so outdated that they appear ludicrous,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 canoeists 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 Michigans 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:
"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 statesmens 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.