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I moved to Austin a few months ago, and before I moved, I could tell you three things about the city.
- The University of Oklahoma sucks for some reason.
- The barbecue is amazing.
- Everyone here is weird as hell.
I mean, it’s the motto, right? Keep Austin Weird. It’s what Austinites pride themselves on and for good reason. Weird isn’t bad. It’s new, it’s cool, it’s out of the ordinary.
Middle-schoolers at the Magnolia School in Bee Cave wanted to know, specifically, about the laws that make Austin weird. They asked their teacher, Hali Vik: What are the weirdest laws in Austin and Texas?
Vik didn’t have an answer, so she submitted the question to KUT’s ATXPlained project.
“It’s really important that my students put something out into the world and they hear back from adults so they know … people care,” Vik said. “So, we formulated the question and I sent it in.”
To answer the students’ question, I turned to the most bad-ass librarian I have ever met.
Amy Small and her team at the Texas Legislative Library sat down in a corner of the library and started sifting through books and books and books of old Texas laws. She opened to bookmarked pages and pointed to some of her favorite examples of weird laws. As a woman in journalism who loves wacky crap, I wanted to see the students’ reactions.
Small and I met them in their classroom to deliver the answer. Here’s how they took it:
The weirdest laws in Texas
I didn’t get to share every odd law with the students. There are also these:
- Cities have the right to regulate the weight and quality of the bread sold in town.
- You can’t throw things off of Mount Bonnell (specifically Mount Bonnell).
- “Thou shalt not milk another man’s cow.” I’m not paraphrasing, this was the law. If someone were caught milking my cow, they could be fined a whopping $10, or $186 today.
There are also a ton of laws we decided not to tell the middle-schoolers about — mostly because they could end in angry parent phone calls. But I can tell you.
- If someone cheated on me, I could kill them. Legally.
This is me and my hypothetical husband, Sergio.
And here is Sergio cheating on me with my hypothetical best friend Becky.
If Becky and Sergio committed adultery between 1866 and1948, I could kill Becky. LEGALLY.
2. In 1948, the state made it illegal to use profane language on the phone.
What you COULDN’T say on the phone in Texas (1948)
That meant saying “shit-faced” or the F word on the phone — or any other swear word, even by accident — would have been a problem.
3. To this day, Texas can regulate how many sex toys you own. That’s right — dildos, vibrators, wands, beads, you name it. A 2008 court case decided you cannot have more than six sex toys. You can have more if you’re selling them, but you’ll need a permit. That law is actually still enforceable.
In fact, a bunch of these weird laws are still on the books.
“No one ever bothers to take them off,” Small said. “They had a purpose at one point in time and we sort of got beyond that purpose. And it takes a lot of energy to repeal the bill, and so they just stay.”
These laws can also have serious consequences.
Take a law against interracial marriage, for instance. To this day, Texas law says someone of one race can’t marry someone of another. The law could be enforced as recently as 1967, before a Supreme Court decision overturned it. But again, the law is still in the books.
Just last summer, Texans learned about a 19th century law that would have allowed up to five years in jail for having an abortion. It’s unclear where that law stands now as legal battles over Texas’ abortion bans are tied up in the courts.
The laws shared with the middle-schoolers may seem absurd today, but as long as they’re on the books, someone could try to get them enforced.
There are a lot of bills before the Legislature right now, and I can’t help but wonder what people in a hundred years will think of them if they pass.