When I was researching weird laws for my book, The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance (and I wouldn’t mention the book yet again except that I didn’t mention it even once yesterday), I quickly learned that one of the most fertile areas for this research was the section in every jurisdiction’s criminal code called something like “Offenses Against Public Decency and Morals.” Trust me, if you need an example of something ridiculous and are short of time, that’s where you should start looking.
Of course your view on some of these is going to depend on your general attitude toward government regulation, and mine is that at least in this particular area there is too much of it. For example, I don’t think state governments should concern themselves with sex toys.
Or, as Texas calls them, “obscene devices,” defined as those “designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.” (Emphasis added, further comment avoided.) The Texas Penal Code states that it is illegal to “promote” or “possess with intent to promote” any such item. This law has been declared unconstitutional, it may or may not surprise you to know, but it remains in the code and the point here is that the Texas Legislature got itself involved in this area to begin with. Having gotten involved, a legislature will then get drawn into even more uncomfortable and ridiculous questions, such as, how shall we determine whether one found to possess such items has the intent to promote or … well, some other intent?
For this the legislature apparently turned to that other constitutional playground, the War on Drugs. There, laws generally presume an “intent to distribute” if a suspect possesses more than a certain quantity of the illegal substance, more than one might expect to be intended only for personal use. (You see where this is going.) And so in Texas: “A person who possesses six or more obscene devices or identical or similar obscene articles is presumed to possess them with intent to distribute the same.” I infer from this (1) that the Texas Legislature engaged in some form of debate about how many obscene devices or articles most people generally possess for merely personal use, and (2) the number resulting from that debate was five.
Maybe that is in fact a reasonable number. I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure the Texas Legislature didn’t have any idea, either.
Or maybe it did. I also noticed that the same section contained an exception that applied if “a person who possesses or promotes material or a device proscribed by this section does so for a bona fide … judicial, legislative, or law enforcement purpose.” Now, probably a commenter — perhaps a Texas legislator? — will pop up to suggest a “bona fide legislative purpose” for being in possession of six or more of these devices, but I haven’t been able to think of one.
Just so I’m not picking only on Texas, other examples of ridiculous laws in this general area might include South Carolina’s law criminalizing “fornication,” a law to which it seems likely no one has ever paid the slightest attention, and Mississippi’s law against keeping stallions within 100 yards of a church. (It doesn’t say why, but again, this last one is also in the section on “Crimes Against Public Morals and Decency,” so I think we can guess.) What if mine’s wearing pants?
Much of this nonsense is enacted at the local level, actually, and my guess is that’s because it’s more likely to go unnoticed. I mean, it’s not a secret that many towns in the United States have a law defining the term “buttocks” that is well over 300 words long, but it doesn’t get a lot of publicity, either. The reason this one is common is that a version of it was once tested in court and upheld, and other towns casting about for a definition of “buttocks” came across that and just adopted it as their own. The point is to address nudity without also banning (for example) the thong bikini, and I admit that might be a difficult thing to put in writing but 316 words still seems excessive.
San Francisco is way more tolerant of nudity than most places, but it also gets tangled up in trying to regulate it. While it just recently did require the wearing of pants in public, this was quite controversial at least with regard to certain events. Which is why it is fair to say, I think, that in San Francisco it is now illegal to be naked in public unless you are in a parade.
For meddling that encroaches on other important rights, consider Gould, Arkansas, where in 2011 the city council eliminated the right to freedom of association. Upset about criticism from a particular group, it just passed an ordinance forbidding the creation of any new organizations, and banning the mayor from meeting with any organization, without approval from a majority of the council. No one paid much attention to this, it being so obviously unconstitutional, but it was (and possibly still is) the “law” there.
Of greater concern, and drawing more attention, is China’s law requiring permission to reincarnate. State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5 requires any “reincarnating living Buddha” to fill out the appropriate forms for government approval, after which they will go looking for the corresponding “Buddha soul child” and (if approved) “issue a living Buddha permit.” Although the bureau claimed, apparently with a straight face, that this measure was intended to promote religious freedom, it is clearly aimed at controlling Tibetan Buddhism. But as is so often the case with laws that involve government meddling, it is both ridiculous and not fooling anyone.
Tomorrow: laws that I find completely baffling. Maybe you can help?