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A Review of You May Not Tie An Alligator to a Fire Hydrant


Friday, Sep. 27, 2002

Jeff Koon and Andy Powell, You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant: 101 Real Dumb Laws (Free Press, 2002)

Nothing wrong with that. Plenty of humor books fit this category, and You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant will surely take its place among other toilet tomes and lavatory laughs.

Why? Because this book does little more than reprint obscure statutes, with virtually no commentary to heighten the amusement.

Don't Teach Bears to Wrestle in Alabama

Alligator consists of highlights from the "dumb laws" website created by the authors - two very enterprising high school seniors. Their only commentary, if you can call it that, is to divide the laws into three categories: those dealing with People, Animals, and Things.

Surely there is a more amusing way to categorize dumb laws. One that leaps to mind while reading Alligator is this: Laws from (1) the South and (2) Everywhere Else. I don't know what these guys (both of whom hail from Georgia) have against their native region, but almost half of their "real dumb" laws come from Dixieland.

Thus we learn that in Alabama, it is illegal to train a bear for wrestling; in Little Rock, Arkansas, you can't honk your horn at a restaurant after dinner; in Belton Missouri, snowball fights are strictly prohibited. Meanwhile, in an interesting twist on the whole gun control issue, the city of Kennesaw, Georgia requires every head of household to own a firearm.

Do You Really Mean Dumb, or Just Old?

Alligator is supposed to feature the dumbest of the dumb laws - 101 real humdingers. But most of the laws in the book (as the authors themselves concede in the introduction) either are simply outdated, or were enacted in response to some unique local problem. Law is, after all, an attempt to impose order on chaos, and the nature of our chaos changes depending on time and place.

A little over a year ago, a law prohibiting box cutters on airplanes would have sounded ridiculous. Now it seems essential. And so, yes, the Rhode Island ban on dueling sounds a bit silly nowadays, but dueling was at one time a serious problem. Just ask Alexander Hamilton.

Send These Laws Off Into the Sunset

Although it is not a serious policy book, Alligator, with all its old laws, does remind us of the value of laws with "sunset" provisions (meaning that the law will expire automatically after a certain period unless renewed by the legislature).

Because sunset provisions put the burden on lawmakers to justify the continuation of laws, they are extremely useful for clearing away archaic statutes - which, with sunset provisions, die a natural death. Perhaps the authors could have made more of this point. (The introduction does allude to the need for legislators to do a bit of "spring cleaning," but automatic sunset provisions are much more effective). But then, as snappy titles go, Why More Laws Should Have Sunset Provisions probably wouldn't send the book flying off the shelves.

Thin Book, Phat Humor

Another problem with Alligator is that we have to rely on two high school boys for the definition of a dumb law. For example, the authors are correct that public spitting is illegal in Virginia, but why is that a dumb law? Public spitting is revolting. Virginia is right: Private disposal of one's spit is the only way to go.

And then there is the title of the book, which comes from a perfectly ordinary Michigan law prohibiting the obstruction of fire hydrants. The law simply precludes people from tying "animals" to fire hydrants; it does not mention "alligators." Granted, alligators would be included among "animals." But the supposed dumbness of the law derives from the specificity of the (nonexistent) reference to alligators.

The same sleight-of-hand is performed with the law that, according to the authors, requires skydivers to wear "a blinking beanie" at night. Actually, the law just says that one must have "a means of producing a light . . ."

Satire needs to be grounded in reality; when the laws are not really "dumb," they are not really funny, either.

Sadly, the authors find untold hilarity in statutes that - get this - prevent cruelty to birds (ha, ha, ha), require bikes to have bells (ho, ho, ho), and prohibit young children from playing in the street (stop it, you're killing me!). At such moments, the joy of reading a statutory compilation proves elusive.

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and columnist for the New York Law Journal. His first collection of short stories, Elated By Details, will be published next year.

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