By: Shraddha Gupta
Statehouse Correspondent/The Sun Chronicle
BOSTON — Sporting events have long been venues of creativity for singers who embellish the “Star Spangled Banner” with extended trills and vibrato. But, believe it or not, it’s against the law in Massachusetts to take those liberties with the national anthem.
The law dates to 1917, before the “Star Spangled Banner” was even the official national anthem. And — whether or not it is enforced now — the state statute certainly meant business in its day.
Consider the actual text of the law:
“Whoever plays, sings or renders the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in any public place, theater, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment, other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays, sings or renders the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ or any part thereof, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $100.”
So there, Steven Tyler and a long list of other offenders.
It’s a good thing the World Series is being played elsewhere this year.
Not messing with the anthem isn’t the only musty statute still on the books in Massachusetts. There are plenty of other antiquated laws under the Golden Dome, some dating to the 1600s.
Spitting in public places could get you arrested and fined $20 under a 1906 law. Seems silly now, but it probably helped curb the spread of tuberculosis.
An anti-blasphemy law could mean up to a year in the slammer and $300 fine.
A puzzling 1962 law seems to make fornication a punishable offense. According to the law, “whoever commits fornication shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three months or by a fine of not more than $30.”
Of course, in bygone days, fornication was usually meant to be sex between an unmarried man and unmarried woman.
A 1762 law makes adultery a crime punishable by up to three years in jail or a $500 fine.
Not all odd laws still on the books are so old.
A seemingly unenforceable 1963 law makes it illegal for diehard sports fans to swear at players and officials during sporting events.
To wit: “Whoever, having arrived at the age of 16 years, directs any profane, obscene or impure language or slanderous statement at a participant or an official in a sporting event, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $50.”
With Gillette Stadium in town, strict enforcement of that law could be another gold mine for Foxboro.
But, Gavi Wolfe, an ACLU attorney, told Statehouse News reporter Christian Wade that antiquated laws are no laughing matter.
“These are old and moldy laws that need to be repealed,” Wolfe said. “They run the gamut from First Amendment violations of free speech to civil liberty violations, dealing with personal relationships that were determined to be unconstitutional years ago.”
Such laws are under the scrutiny of a state commission now reviewing sentencing policies. The commission is weighing whether to recommend lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker repeal them in coming months.
Some local legislators support culling the laws.
“I’m very much in favor of old laws being repealed,” said Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk. “The reality is that these laws can be abused and have unintended consequences that no one ever could have envisioned when they were originally written.”
Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, thinks removing such laws could be time-consuming for lawmakers who have more pressing issues to address.
“I am concentrating at this time on the projected budget shortfall that is predicted. That is of great concern to our communities and our constituents,” she said. “The formal sessions will begin again in January. All legislators will be filing their new legislation and perhaps taking a look at redrafting older legislation.”
But, Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, says the Legislature could still find the time to dispatch some of the obsolete statutes.
“There’s nothing wrong with repealing antiquated laws. The Legislature has the ability to multitask, and can take on low-level issues like this, as well as more important and pressing matters.”