The tendency to pass more and more laws and the objection to this practice have been noted throughout history. In the 1970’s, the nation had a serious discussion about “sunset laws,” laws that would be enacted for a specified length of time and then expire. As early as the 7th Century B.C., as Gibbon notes, lawmakers recognized the value of limiting the amount of regulation:
The decemvirs had neglected to import the sanction of Zalecucus, which for so long maintained the integrity of his republic. A Locrian, who proposed any new law, stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and if the law was rejected, the innovator was immediately strangled.Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Jones and Company, 1828. Vol. III, p. 168. Our society long ago took the brakes of the legislative engine and it is only under a very unusual circumstance that any penalty—even something as mild as public ridicule—attends the proposal of a new law.
But while I join the many who find it dispiriting that we do not limit the number of laws, there was a recent MPR story that stopped me in my tracks. In a story discussing bullying, this statement was made: “Minnesota's current law is one of the shortest in the country.” Could it be that there are people who want not better, not more effective, but longer laws? I drilled down a bit, thinking that the sentence might be an aberration. But earlier MPR stories on the subject of bullying* had also noted the brevity of Minnesota’s statute:
At just 37 words, Minnesota's law against bullying is one of the shortest in the nation:The headline for that article was: “A six-month Minnesota Public Radio News investigation of bullying policies across the state found a patchwork of policies and that the state's policy is one of the shortest in the nation.” http://minnesota.publicradio.org/projects/2011/05/bullying/
"Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use."
That's the only requirement. Unlike other state laws, it contains no list of what those policies must include.
Indeed, thirty-seven words is a modest showing for a statute. Thousands, perhaps millions of longer statutes exist in the United States. Here, for instance, is a 145-word offering from the State of New York:
A person who overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, maims, mutilates or kills any animal, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to himself or to another, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink, or causes, procures or permits any animal to be overdriven, overloaded, tortured, cruelly beaten, or unjustifiably injured, maimed, mutilated or killed, or to be deprived of necessary food or drink, or who willfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a class A misdemeanor and for purposes of paragraph (b) of subdivision one of section 160.10 of the criminal procedure law, shall be treated as a misdemeanor defined in the penal law.Maybe MPR’s push for longer laws will lead to laws like that gem.
Of course, while thirty-seven words is quite paltry compared to the word count of many contemporary laws, it is possible to draft laws that are both brief and well-written. Consider: “Thou shalt not kill. . . . Thou shalt not steal.” These ancient laws each have only four words, but their effects have resonated through millennia. And cannot we agree that the commandment that actually does attempt to list all possible permutations of prohibition—though equally sacrosanct—is not as well drafted:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.Notice the catch-all provision at the end. This is necessary because the preceding list could not possibly list all the things that might belong to one’s neighbor. Why is the neighbor’s plow not listed? Why not his children? Why not his harvested crops? The act of listing is inherently perilous.
This is not to say that there are never occasions for lists in statutes. Sometimes all specific things must be listed. But in this context listing every possible act that intimidates or bullies is fraught with difficulty. Repeatedly punching someone is obviously bullying. Threatening someone is obviously bullying too. What about patting a teammate on the butt after a football touchdown? What about hugging a friend? What about raising one’s voice to the point of yelling? What about raising one’s voice slightly? What about telling a fellow student that her shirt is dirty or that her clothes are ugly? The interactions at school are so limitless that any attempt to categorize them in a detailed list is a fool’s errand. Local school officials are qualified to regulate the conduct of students without a list that explains precisely what the Minnesota legislature meant by “intimidation” and “bullying.” The legislature had a sound reason for not enumerating every unacceptable act that might fit under the rubrics of “intimidation” or “bullying.”
The notion that the quality of one state’s laws can be compared to that of another by counting words is ridiculous. While being thorough is important, the essence of good writing—and it applies to legislative writing too—is brevity. No statute should ever be criticized for not being long enough. Blaise Pascal famously observed, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have time.” Similarly, statutes are often too long because they are not carefully crafted.
It may seem quite odd that anyone would be twisted enough to take time out of a Thanksgiving Day to criticize those who are pursuing the noble goal of eliminating bullying. The simple explanation is that I was a victim of childhood bullying myself and am still suffering from its shattering effects. And so I say: MPR, please do not suggest that we should evaluate the quality of statutes based on their length.
*For the record, I refuse to use the prevalent “anti” prefix when discussing bullying laws. Do we need to say “anti-murder laws” or “anti-kidnapping laws” in order to convey the notion that society is opposed to murder and kidnapping?