Ordinance Against Fortune Telling Overturned

A federal judge has overturned a city ordinance in Alexandria, Louisiana that banned fortune telling, ruling that the law violates the First Amendment. The Associated Press reports:

A federal judge has struck down a central Louisiana ordinance banning fortunetelling, palm reading, astrology and similar activities in the city of Alexandria.

U.S. District Judge Dee Drell’s ruling Wednesday concurs with a magistrate’s conclusion that the ordinance is unconstitutional…

The city argued the business of fortunetelling is a fraud and inherently deceptive, but U.S. Magistrate James Kirk concluded that fortunetelling is free speech protected by the First Amendment.

As always, I have mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, I think much of what goes on here is outright fraud (the rest, for those who genuinely believe they can see the future, is unwitting fraud). But that’s really no different from virtually any faith-based belief, which means the government would be picking and choosing which superstitious belief systems are allowed and which are not. As the judge writes:

Based on its own clairvoyance, the City has decreed in brief that it is impossible to predict the future, and contends the business of fortune-telling is a fraud and is inherently deceptive…. The City suggests that “fortune-tellers have no demonstrable facts upon which to base their predictions.”… The danger of the government deciding what is true and not true, real and unreal, should be obvious. For example, some might say that a belief in God or in a particular religion, for example, or in the “Book of Revelations” is not supported by demonstrable facts. Books that repeat the predictions of Nostradamus and the daily newspaper horoscope could be banned under the City’s reasoning.

On the other hand, giving such frauds protection under the guise of religion makes it trivially easy for someone to create what is essentially a rackateering ring with the thin veneer of religion over the top — see the “Church” of Scientology as a perfect example. In the end, it’s simply too dangerous to have the government picking and choosing which religious beliefs get protection despite the total lack of evidence for their claims and which do not. Yes, that inevitably means that people will get bilked out of their money by con men in religious — or “spiritualist” — garb. Such is the price of freedom in a world where religion remains dominant.

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  • Pyra

    I was doing this sort of thing for a long time, though I don’t know that I ever actually believed my own readings, but a lot of people liked to hear what I had to say. I didn’t charge fees, but felt a biting need to “help” any way I could. Things are pretty easy to predict. I don’t want to ban anything, cherry pick religion/superstitions. I just want to get the education out there that what is being done is actually lay people who feel they need to *help* others. Often, it was just a matter of listening and giving encouragement. Which means we should be investing in more counseling and therapy and making strides to lessen the stigma of mental help. And also upping the stigma of seeking counseling from clairvoyants. It took a lot for people to listen to me when I told them I finally understood that what I was doing was basically lay counseling. People in desperate circumstances don’t care if you believe in it or not. Breaking the ties to those who were seeking my help took a lot of swallowing of pride. It can be done, though.

  • Gvlgeologist, FCD

    You’re right about the possibility of fraud, but on the other hand, in today’s world, virtually all religions are “a rackateering ring with the thin veneer of religion over the top”.

    I gotta say that I loved the Judge’s comment:

    Based on its own clairvoyance, the City has decreed in brief that it is impossible to predict the future, and contends the business of fortune-telling is a fraud and is inherently deceptive.


    And he does well to point out that “mainstream” religions could be banned under the same logic.

  • dingojack

    I predicted this (it was in the tea leaves).

    Seriously, such activities might be fraud but proving it would be difficult.

    Not the question of if the person lost by following the advice, not the question of if the person acted on the advice, it’s the question of whether the information given was false and the advisor knew that it was false.

    There’s the rub.

    It could possibly proven but it would take quite a bit of effort.


  • One solution that comes to mind but wouldn’t work out in the real world: Make fortune tellers register for a license or something, where they have to pass the kind of tests skeptics like us would put them through.

    If we got that, people would endlessly complain when no one passes the test, and then relaxed standards would come in, letting anyone claim to be a reliable fortune teller. They’ve got the government papers and everything.

  • eric

    IMO…like libel and slander, our choice with fortunetelling is between a law that results in a lot of false positives (legitimate speech identified as crime) or a lot of false negatives (crime identified as legitimate speech). But the overlap is such that you’re never going to get a law that results in low numbers of both types of errors.

    In principle, the distinction is simple (and similar to libel): if the person is knowingly deceiving their audience to either do harm or turn a profit, its a crime. In practice, that ‘knowlingly’ can be extremely difficult to ascertain.

  • I never think these things should be made illegal. First of all, as you said, it’s ridiculous to say fortune telling is not based on demonstrable facts but then you allow astrologists, homeopathy, scientology “personality tests”, john edwards and all that other nonsense.

    Secondly if you make it illegal, you think you wont make it more attractive to hard core believers to seek the true martyr working out of her basement because the big bad government is afraid of her and what she can do? Please.

    How about not making any of it illegal, focus on educating the population and promoting critical thinking, and turn it into a big joke for people who want to get their palm read when hammered to see how good of a parlor trick the fake gypsy’s cold reading is.

  • Michael Heath

    The Judge writes:

    Based on its own clairvoyance, the City has decreed in brief that it is impossible to predict the future, and contends the business of fortune-telling is a fraud and is inherently deceptive.

    Uh no, the city was not demonstrating clairvoyance; there is no evidence fortune tellers can predict the future on the very subjects that create demand for their services. So it’s a major fallacy of balance error for the judge to declare the city’s assertions are equivalent to what fortune tellers do.

    However, these fortune tellers perpetuating an obvious fraud is not currently unconstitutional, primarily because that same fraud is perpetuated in nearly all conservative Christian denominations where those Christian frauds’ rights are also protected based on how the courts currently interpret the Constitution. Which is that religious frauds’ religious freedom rights are protected at the expense of people who suffer the consequences of these frauds exercising their rights.

  • madbull

    I don’t think these things should be made illegal ! Why I get my fortune told for the laughs sometimes. It’s ridiculous, it’s stupid but people have the right to do stupid things. What’s needed is good education and critical thinking skills to be inculcated so that customers don’t fall prey to these frauds.

  • lofgren

    I don’t know. It’s one thing to disseminate your beliefs. It’s another to offer a specific service and charge for it. Even Creflo Dollar doesn’t say that he has the power to return the money that you send him tenfold. He just says that he believes that god will do it. That’s really irrelevant though since whatever tricky language you require from the fortune tellers, they’ll just use that and rake in the same amount (“Lady Zsa Zsa communes with spirits who may or may not know your future. Spirits who actually do know your future are attracted by portraits of handsome dead men placed into this jar. All contents of the jar are the exclusive property of Lady Zsa Zsa. Ulysses S. Grant seems to be especially attractive to spirits.”)

  • dingojack

    Two clients go to see a clairvoyant to ask about whether they should set up a business together selling widgits.

    ‘Can you really see into the seeds of time and see which will grow and which will not? Can you see our futures? Asks one client.

    ‘Yes I can see your futures’ says the clairvoyant.

    ‘Well’ says the other client ‘if we pursue with this business opportunity will it succeed, based on your knowledge of our futures?’

    ‘Based on my knowledge, yes’ says the clairvoyant.

    They follow the advice but the business fails and they dissolve the partnership.

    Then they bring charges against the clairvoyant, separately. One alleging fraud, the other deception.

    ‘So’ says the lawyer prosecuting the fraud case, ‘do you claim to know what will happen to your client’s futures’…

    From this point the pincer is set. If the clairvoyant says ‘yes’, then because the business failed in the future then the clairvoyant clearly knowingly passed on information that wasn’t true, then that constitutes fraud, if the clairvoyant says ‘no’ then clearly his assurance that he knew the clients’ futures was a deception to gain money.

    🙂 Dingo

  • Fortune telling has to be protected because it is a form of story-telling. The only drawback is that it can prey on the gullible and people desperately seeking solace. But that is true of movies and ‘reality’ TV, not to mention religion.

  • eric

    Don’t think your pincer will work, Dingo. The flaw is in your first ‘claw’: its not fraud to believe you can fortell the future but get the future wrong. If it was, every stockbroker would be in jail.

  • erichoug

    Freedom is messy.

  • dingojack

    The claw is not whether you believe you know future events, it’s that you know future events. The latter implies certainty.

    [Disclaimer IANAL]


  • Gregory in Seattle

    @Pyra #1 – I did card readings for years to supplimenting my income when in college and after. You are spot on.

    I would describe it more as being an advice columnist who uses Tarot cards rather than newsprint. If I had something to offer after hearing them describe their problem, I “read” it in the cards: their meanings are so vague anyway that it is easy to do. If I had nothing, I gave general advice — save some money, study harder, seek professional help — then begged off with “the future is too much in flux right now to see clearly.”

    Yeah, there are a lot of shills. I suppose I would have been in that category, as I never believed the cards never said anything I didn’t want them to say. There are scammers, of course, but like ministers, most are earnest and strive to be helpful.

  • Michael Heath

    Re all the arguments that fortune-telling and related fraud should remain legal:

    Those arguments are well-embedded in our national psyche, what I find missing are compelling arguments on why their practice should remain constitutional and therefore legal. Arguments that are made within the context of suffering they and their ilk inflict on others.

    I’m not arguing these practices should be illegal, but instead that I’m increasingly uncomfortable taking the position these frauds’ rights should be protected at the expense of others without first considering compelling contra arguments I speculate exist.

  • peterh

    To know the future is to be ruled by it.

  • cjcolucci

    Somewhat related was an actual New York case in which the plaintiff claimed that she and the defendant had an agreement under which she would pray to a “St. Eligua” — identified by the court as St. Eligius — and ask the saint to guide the defendant’s lottery number picks. For this service, the praying plaintiff was to get half the lottery winnings.

    You can probably guess what happened. The defendant won the lottery and the plaintiff sued for her cut. The trial judge threw the case out on the theory that it would be impossible to establish that the praying plaintiff’s prayers to the alleged saint had caused the defendant to pick the winning lottery numbers. On appeal, the trial judge was reversed. The appeals court held thatplaintiff did not have to prove the efficacy of her prayers. All she had to prove was that she and the defendant had entered into a contract under which she would pray to the saint for defendant to win the lottery, that she did pray as the contract required, and that the defendant won. I can only assume that the parties reached a settlement afterward, since there never was a trial.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … the City has decreed in brief that it is impossible to predict the future…

    Under a consistent reading of this interpretation, economics, news punditry, and meteorology, among other trades, would be illegal in Alexandria.


  • The Lorax

    I agree that it’s free speech. Listen, capitalism means caveat emptor. If you buy a foul product, you can’t put all the blame on the guy selling it to you. That’s why you “kick the tires and check under the hood”, so to speak.

    Of course there can be laws which limit such things (and there should be), but there’s a blurry line there, as there always is.

    The solution? Education. Teach the masses to know what’s real and what’s snake oil. With enough education, there will be no demand for frauds and woo-peddlers, and no demand means no supply.

  • Michael Heath

    The Lorax writes:

    I agree that it’s free speech. Listen, capitalism means caveat emptor. If you buy a foul product, you can’t put all the blame on the guy selling it to you. That’s why you “kick the tires and check under the hood”, so to speak.

    The opposite is predominately true. If you purchase a product or service and it doesn’t work as marketed, the law is predominately on the side of the consumer. The Uniform Commercial Code also provides protections when it comes to industrial marketing transactions (business-to-business transactions.) So when it comes to woo-derived speech, we inconsistently protect the woo-producer rather than the consumer of this woo when the service doesn’t deliver.

    This is also why fortune-tellers are required to disclaim their service and instead assert it’s for entertainment purposes only. Another exception with no protections to consumers is for-profit book publishers who publish books as non-fiction even when their predominate premises are false, e.g., Christian books on prophecy or their faith claims which are falsely framed as real events.

  • Pyra

    The idea that people are using this only as fraud is odd to me. In the circles I travelled, it was misplaced concern and care. I knew no one who would have lasted more than a month in our circles if they were merely trying to play a sleazy con-artist. The ostracism would have killed any business prospects.

    It felt like a way to help. I didn’t get a dime out of it, though people often tried to pay me.

    I can’t stress that enough. In the occult circles, it’s misplaced compassion mixed with true belief. That there are dozens of people who are looking for answers from an outside source, and usually unable to get an answer, only adds to the appeal.

    It’s just like holistic healers. People don’t trust the machine-like factory help they’re getting. A “reader” will usually be more compassionate and actually have time to sit and listen to a whole session that a psych doesn’t have time for.

    And I stand by my view that instead of just making fortune-telling illegal, we need to offer way more mental help, and kill the stigma of seeking mental help.

    In this case, if the fortune-tellers are deprived of a client base, the practice will die out.

    But it’s easy to focus on these people, because even most churches are against them, at least around here. It’s still considered a doorway to Satanism, here. So, it’s really easy to pick on them. Of course, if we outlawed all woo, I’m sure other woo would sprout up, while our official channels of mental help remain really stupidly difficult to get.

    The only thing outlawing card-readers and such does is make Christians feel empowered to preach against anything outside of their own woo as being wrong. So wrong as to be illegal.