It’s Illegal to Do What? Strange Laws and Why They Exist

Posted on Categories Legal History, Public

jumping frogThis semester in Professor Lisa Mazzie’s Advanced Legal Writing: Writing for Law Practice seminar, students are required to write one blog post on a law- or law school-related topic of their choice. Writing blog posts as a lawyer is a great way to practice writing skills, and to do so in a way that allows the writer a little more freedom to showcase his or her own voice, and—eventually for these students—a great way to maintain visibility as a legal professional. Here is one of those blog posts, this one written by 2L Kelly Owens.

“In Bellingham, Washington, it is illegal for a woman to do what while dancing?” my dad asked the family during a heated game of Balderdash while I was home for the Easter holiday.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the (highly entertaining) game of Balderdash, the game poses questions across various categories to the players, and each player must come up with a convincing answer to attempt to trick other players into picking their answer over the correct one.

During this particular round, the category was weird laws.  And, apparently, Bellingham, Washington, has at least one such law.

No, Bellingham does not make it illegal for a woman to kick her legs into the air while dancing (my mom’s answer), but it is illegal for a woman to take more than three steps backward while dancing.  Or is it?

My immediate thought after getting through the round and hearing the answer was, How did such a ridiculous thing become a law?  Better yet, how does one even go about enforcing such a law?  My law student curiosity got the best of me, so I of course decided that this law required some more investigating.

Digging deeper into the depths of the internet (and by that I mean a quick Google search) provided me with somewhat of an answer—although such a law did perhaps at one time exist in Bellingham, this particular law no longer exists.

A quick scan through the municipal code of the City of Bellingham confirmed this fact; there are no current laws prohibiting a woman from taking more than three steps backward in Bellingham.  However, I could not find any information on why this law once existed, when it existed, whether it was ever enforced, and, if so, how the city enforced it.

What I did stumble across, though, was list after list of other weird laws in other states, so many of which seemed so arbitrary, outlandish, and just plain insane.  Entire websites are devoted to listing out these weird laws, like dumblaws.com, which lists “dumb” laws in the United States by each state individually and also lists international laws.  Publishers have compiled these laws into books, too, and each of these websites and books are highly entertaining, but it does make you wonder why these laws ever existed in the first place.

There are a few explanations for these many weird or “dumb” laws.  In many instances, these purportedly “dumb” laws are clear misunderstandings of what the law really is.  Imagine these books and websites that list these strange laws being the final person in a line of those playing the Telephone Game; across time, many laws become misconstrued and misunderstood.

Many other reports of “dumb” laws are mere hoaxes—the reported laws simply don’t exist in any form.  In other instances, some of these “laws” are based on case rulings at common law.  Imagine an individual become so fed up with his neighbor mowing the lawn at 5 a.m. every morning that he files an injunction so the neighbor stops mowing the lawn at this time.  If a court grants the injunction, some might construe such a holding as law, i.e., it is illegal to mow the lawn at 5 a.m.

Other laws may have been practical at one point in time, though they are now obsolete in today’s society, yet perhaps remain on the books past the point of practicality.  For example, one list of weird laws states that in California, if a frog in a frog-jumping contest dies, it is illegal to eat the frog.

The law is apparently tied to an 80-year-old tradition called the Frog Jumping Jubilee in a mining town and was enacted many years ago to prevent people from eating unsanitary frogs.  When you consider the context in which this law came about, it makes sense that, 80 years ago, some people may have found it commonplace to catch and eat frogs, yet health codes and sanitation practices were not the same as they are today.

In another example, in Alabama it is illegal to train bears to wrestle.  Why anyone would need to know that this is illegal in order to refrain from doing it is puzzling, but, apparently, bears wrestling men was a popular sport in the 1800s, and, because of its danger, Alabama enacted a law to prohibit such an act.

Thus, sometimes all these laws need is a bit of context to understand why they came about, even if they have no relevance today.

I still have no answer as to why the Bellingham law prohibiting women from taking three steps backward while dancing existed, and we may never know whether such a law was a misunderstanding, a hoax, some strange court ruling, or a law that had some context once upon a time, or maybe even none of the above.  The same can probably be said for all of the weird laws in the game of Balderdash.

But despite the questionable authenticity of many of these laws, some are likely true, and thus a unique look into history and human behavior at the time.  Bottom line, though?  Maybe don’t trust all of these “dumb” and weird laws to be true, but they are pretty entertaining nonetheless.

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