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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

Statutes of limitations

Most of the time, lawmakers spend so much time making new laws that they just don't have the time to get rid of all the old ones that must have seemed good ideas a century or two ago but now just clutter up the books.

That's why, for example, Massachusetts residents well into the 20th century were technically required to take their firearms to church on Sunday in case of Indian attack, and why in St. Louis it continued to be illegal to sit on a street corner drinking beer from a bucket long after bars stopped serving take-home draft.

Old laws like these are amusing, except when someone actually tries to enforce them, as was the case a few years ago when a Michigan man swore a blue streak after falling out of his canoe on the Rifle River and was convicted under a statute that made it illegal to cuss in front of women or children. He was sentenced to four days of community service and fined $75, but the statute was wisely struck down on appeal.

Washington state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles has introduced legislation to repeal a 1909 law that makes it illegal to publicly call into question the virtue of any women over 12 (except a "common prostitute"). Ms. Kohl-Welles says the law is left over from a sexist age that patronized women, is an affront to free speech, and ought to be stricken from the books.

Undoubtedly she's right. Michigan had a similar law, which it repealed. No doubt Michigan women feel they have a more equal stake in democracy now that they can with impunity be called strumpets, harlots, hussies, and worse.

But we also admit to a certain nostalgia for those generally unenforced statutes in various communities across the land which made it a crime to get a fish drunk, sell corn flakes on Sunday, eat a doughnut and walk backward on a city street, or detonate a nuclear device within the city limits, although the latter is certainly wise policy.

As Ms. Kohl-Welles has said, she and her colleagues have more important matters to discuss. So, why not let sleeping dogs lie until the unlikely event that someone attempts to enforce the archaic law?

After all, waking a sleeping dog is probably illegal somewhere.

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