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When Dickens wrote, 'The law is a ass,' he was thinking of municipal ordinances

"The law is a ass — a idiot," declares Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist. (Don't complain to me that it should be an ass. That's how Dickens wrote it.)

Mr. Bumble was right. The law is an ass. The law neither thinks, nor makes exceptions. It plods along, donkey-like, exactly as it is written. What else can it do?

So if a law is flawed, it's not the law's fault. It's not even the fault of the people who enforce it. It's the fault of the people who wrote it, and even they usually aren't as dumb as the law seems.

Take St. Petersburg's ban on the sale of hot dogs by street vendors after 9 p.m.

A vendor on Central Avenue made an arrangement with an Irish pub to stay open late. This was good for everybody, until the police shut her down.

At first blush, nobody in the city could even explain why it was illegal.

I asked again on Wednesday, and the city's lawyers looked up the history. I was thinking, maybe the reason was the risk of robberies, or food safety, or competition with restaurants.

Actually, it goes back to a vendor ordinance from the 1960s, when everybody agreed to a 9 p.m. cutoff for music-playing ice-cream trucks, which seems reasonable. Nobody was being a moron. The law has just hung around. Here's looking forward to the City Council's update.

This brings us to the city of Clearwater, where you can't throw a ball or a Frisbee with your kid in a public park.

Also illegal, for that matter, are "football, baseball, softball, horseshoes, tennis, volleyball, badminton, or any other organized activity involving thrown or otherwise propelled objects such as balls, stones, arrows, javelins, shuttlecocks, Frisbees, model aircraft or roller skates."

As to why Clearwater can't just pass an ordinance against being a nuisance or danger in the park — again, see Mr. Bumble's comment. Cheers to City Council member George Cretekos for getting the council to reconsider this.

Also in Clearwater, there's a ban on skateboarding on parts of Mandalay Avenue on the beach. Same theme: irresponsible skateboarders. Same solution: Ban all skateboards — even though, as my colleague Diane Steinle points out, lots of employees on the beach use safer, longer boards to trek from remote parking lots to their jobs. Why not enforce the existing ordinance against recklessness?

Also in Clearwater — wait a minute, didn't I just say that? — also in Clearwater, the city now will have to fork over $55,000 to a bait-and-tackle-store owner to settle a lawsuit.

The city tried to fine this guy for painting a mural of fish on the side of his store, claiming a violation of the city's sign ordinance. In protest, he put up a banner of the First Amendment — and they tried to cite him for that, too. Great googly moogly!

This actually was the city's second such case, the first involving an Egyptian-themed restaurant that tried to decorate its building with, shockingly enough... hieroglyphics.

In both cases, the courts ruled the art in question was, uh, art, not a sign. (Presumably if the hieroglyphics had said "Eat at Tut's," they would have been illegal.)

Before Dickens, there was Shakespeare, who opined in Measure for Measure:

O! it is excellent

To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.

After which he was cited for a code enforcement violation.

When Dickens wrote, 'The law is a ass,' he was thinking of municipal ordinances 07/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 1:22pm]
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