For years, North Carolina newspapers that publish lottery results have routinely broken state law.
But nobody much seems to care.
The bill to create a state lottery that the N.C. House passed last week includes a revision to an existing law that's been on the books since 1887.
"Except in connection with a lawful raffle ... if anyone by writing or printing or by circular or letter or in any other way, advertise or publish an account of a lottery, whether within or without this State ... he shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor," the current law says.
So slap the handcuffs on Jon Witherspoon, the publisher of the Winston-Salem Journal.
Even though North Carolina doesn't have a lottery, the Journal and lots of other North Carolina newspapers routinely publish lottery results from neighboring states.
The Journal publishes results from Virginia. The Raleigh News & Observer publishes results from Virginia and South Carolina. The Asheville Citizen-Times publishes results from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia.
But publishers and their attorneys don't seem worried about the law against advertising lotteries; they say it's an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
"I think it's prior restraint on publication, as the law is written. And I think it is also a violation of the First Amendment - particularly when it's legal in the state where it's offered," Witherspoon said. "We've reported on that stuff for years."
Jennie Lambert, the publisher of The Shelby Star and the president of the N.C. Press Association, compared the law against publishing lottery results to a city ordinance against spitting on the street.
"It seems to me that it's one of those laws that some lawmaker thought was a good idea at the time, but like many of our laws, is unenforceable," Lambert said.
"There really is a lot of crime - a lot of serious issues to address," she said. "I really don't think our modern legislators would have in mind handcuffing newspaper publishers and hauling them off to jail."
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the press association, said she is unaware of any instances of the law having been enforced against a newspaper.
But the N.C. Court of Appeals did uphold the law when a Gaston County man challenged it after he was charged with advertising a lottery when he tried to raffle off a three-bedroom house in 1981.
The lottery bill that the House passed and is now in the N.C. Senate would change the ban on advertising or publishing accounts of lotteries to exempt North Carolina's lottery. Another section of the bill limits lottery advertising just to the stores and other outlets where tickets would be sold.
"I think it's a shame that the General Assembly would not take this opportunity to clean up our statute and make it constitutional," Martin said. "I do think that even as amended ... the language of our law remains unconstitutional."
John Bussian, another attorney for the press association, agreed that the 1887 law couldn't be enforced.
"Any state or federal law that purports to criminalize the reporting of lawfully obtained information is unconstitutional," Bussian said.
"Those brave souls who decided the Pentagon Papers case on the U.S. Supreme Court would roll over in their graves upon hearing that the public could be deprived of its lottery numbers," Bussian said.
Witherspoon compared the 118-year-old law to another law that has come under scrutiny lately.
"It's another one of those statutes that remain on the books for morality reasons, the same as the old cohabitation laws," he said. "If those were enforced, hell, we would have judges in prison."
With tongue firmly in cheek, District Attorney Tom Keith yesterday relished the thought of prosecuting journalistic scofflaws.
"We're going to convene a task force of Republican district attorneys to study this very serious problem," Keith said.
And if he decides to pursue the letter of the law, the penalty for a Class 2 misdemeanor is as much as 60 days in jail, depending on prior offenses.