In these very serious times, it seems that it’s appropriate to get rid of some of the silly or outdated laws that are still on the books. I’m talking about things like it being illegal in Oklahoma to tease dogs by making ugly faces, Michigan’s law that forbids a wife from having her hair cut without her husband’s approval, and in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, the law that prohibits people from “singing, whistling, or hooting” if it annoys somebody else. Wait a minute. That last one isn’t an old law. It’s an ordinance that was just passed by the South Carolina town.
Before you laugh at this law, I should make it clear that it is not in effect 24 hours a day. That would be ridiculous. It only applies to sounds that annoy somebody between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. It also only deals with these actions if they are performed in public. You can still sing in the shower, and you can still do your indoor hooting wherever you usually do it. And you thought Santa Monica was a beach town with goofy laws.
Chief of police, Danny Howard, doesn’t want this ordinance to be fodder for people like me to ridicule. He pointed out that nobody is going to get a ticket just for singing in public. However, if that singing annoys other people, then they might get a $500 ticket.
When I first heard about this ordinance, it struck me that if there were just a slight twist to it, it would be the kind of thing that teenagers would like to be the law. That imaginary twist is that the law would apply only to parents, not to kids. If you’ve ever had a teenager and you started to sing in public, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Typical reactions include the rolling of the eyes, the shaking of the heads, and acting as if they’ve never seen you before. Similarly, if you talk in a normal voice, but they think it’s embarrassingly loud, they would feel that a mere fine would be too lenient of a punishment.
But the law was not written by teenagers to apply to their parents. It was written by adults to apply to everybody. The part I find most intriguing is that it’s not the decibels that are the issue. It’s whether the sounds somebody makes annoy somebody else. The knee-jerk reaction to this law is that it’s too broad. I think it may actually be too narrow.
Why stop at sounds that are annoying to other people? There are lots of annoying things that people do in public that could be outlawed. Here are a few off the top of my head:
In a better world, people who wear T-shirts that read, “I’m with Stupid” shall be committing an offense in all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Anyone walking down the street and talking into one of those cell phones with the ridiculous ear things so you can’t tell if they’re talking to you, if they’re crazy, or if they’re just self-important, should be arrested and not allowed to text for 30 days. If you’re waiting for an elevator after you’ve pushed the button and someone joins you and pushes the button as if you wouldn’t have had the knowledge or experience to have done it yourself, that person should be taken to jail immediately. If you’re in a grocery checkout line, and the person in front of you has … .You get the idea.
Everyone could make a list of things that other people do that they find annoying. It might even be people who ask you to make lists. Again, the fascinating thing about the Sullivan’s Island ordinance is that the crime is not based on the action of the perpetrator. It’s based on the reaction of other people. So you can “sing, hoot or whistle” as loud as you want if it doesn’t annoy anyone. On the other hand, if people have a negative reaction to what you do between 11:00 P.M. and 7:00 A.M., you’re in trouble. It’s because of this last fact that I must insist that, just in case, everyone in Sullivan’s Island only read my column either before eleven or after seven.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his website at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.