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State High Court Rules Out Ban on Fortune-Tellers

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that will affect ordinances in several cities, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that laws flatly prohibiting fortune-telling violate the state Constitution’s free speech protections.

“That some--even a majority--may find this mode of communication distasteful, ridiculous or even corrupt is irrelevant to constitutional concerns,” the court said in the first ruling of its type in the country.

In a case from Azusa, Justice Stanley Mosk, writing for the majority, acknowledged that “many persons practicing the ‘art’ of fortune-telling are engaging in fraudulent activity.” But he pointed out that a state law forbids phony fortune-telling, and said local laws against it can also be fashioned.

At the same time, Mosk said, “it is also true that some persons believe they possess the power to predict what has not yet come to pass.

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“When such persons impart their beliefs to others,” the opinion added, “they are not acting fraudulently. They are communicating opinions which, however dubious, are unquestionably protected by the Constitution.”

Among cities with Azusa-type ordinances are Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Fullerton, Pomona and Laguna Beach, plaintiff’s attorney Barry Fisher said.

Unanimous Ruling

The ruling striking down Azusa’s ordinance was unanimous, though three of the seven justices disagreed with the majority that fortune-telling should be afforded broad constitutional protection.

In finding the ordinance to be overly broad, the court pointed out that many others predict the future--from newspaper astrologers to economists, horse-racing handicappers and clergymen who “describe the concept of a hereafter.” Under Azusa’s ordinance, these practices could be banned.

The court rejected the City of Azusa’s claim that its law was valid because it did not bar fortune-telling, but merely fortune-telling for which a fee is charged.

But while so-called commercial speech does not have the same constitutional protection as political or religious speech, the court concluded that fortune-telling involves “the passing of ideas and information--some valid, some questionable, some false.”

“If we were to accept the city’s theory,” Mosk wrote, “a lecture for or against Marxism, abortion, nuclear power or racial supremacy would be commercial speech if people paid an admission charge to hear it, because the lecture would complete the transaction. Such a result would be unprecedented and untenable.”

The case stemmed from a suit filed in 1979 by Fatima Stevens, a Gypsy and founder and minister of the Spiritual Psychic Science Church of Truth Inc., after Azusa invoked its ordinance to stop her from working as a fortune-teller.

“It is exciting, but I just knew we’d win,” said Stevens, who charges $20 for a session of tarot card or palm reading.

She said she received congratulatory calls throughout the day from other Gypsies, although at first there had been hesitation among the largely unassimilated people over whether to bring the suit. Traditionally, Gypsies have kept a low profile, avoiding such institutions as the judiciary. Some also were concerned that if Stevens won, and laws were relaxed, there would be an increase in fortunetellers, hence more competition.

“Even Gypsies who were opposed before are happy today,” Stevens said. " . . . I’m just glad I’m the one who did it.”

“It is a major first step in vindication of Romany (Gypsy) civil rights in America,” said Fisher, a Century City lawyer who represented Stevens. “The original intent of most of these anti-fortunetelling laws was an anti-Gypsy sentiment.”

He said cities wanted “to keep these people out, and the way you did this was to enact anti-fortunetelling ordinances.” He noted that fortune-telling is a “core feature of the Romany belief system.”

In a recent interview with The Times, Los Angeles Police Detective Jose Alcantara predicted that if the fortune-telling laws were struck down, “the floodgates will be open.”

“California will be crawling with fortune-tellers looking for people susceptible to their con games. That ordinance is our only tool to protect the public,” the detective said, estimating that there are perhaps 100 fortune-tellers in the Los Angeles area.

“If you can’t predict the future, how can you charge for it?” Azusa Mayor Eugene Moses said, vowing an appeal. “And if they can predict the future, they should go to the race track to make their money.”

In a concurring opinion, Justices Otto Kaus and Cruz Reynoso agreed that Azusa’s ordinance was too broad but questioned placing fortune-telling on a “free speech pedestal.”

Justice Malcolm M. Lucas dissented from the conclusion that the ban on fortune-telling violates freedom of speech. He termed Mosk’s portrayal of the sincere fortune teller “naive,” adding that Azusa had a right to “protect its citizens from their own gullibility.”

Operates After Fact

Lucas also said that the state law banning fraudulent fortune-telling operates only after the fact. It “would be of little solace to an Azusa widow bilked of her life savings by a necromancer or a crystal gazer who had the ‘foresight’ to take early leave,” Lucas said. (Spiritual Psychic Science Church v. Azusa, L.A. 31926)

In another ruling Thursday, the court by a 4-3 margin affirmed the murder conviction of a San Joaquin County man who killed a neighbor in December, 1981, at the mobile home park where they lived. The court agreed with Stanley Wright that the trial judge should have let his lawyers introduce evidence that the victim, Gilbert Jurado, had heroin in his system within a day before his death, and that the judge improperly instructed the jury on legal points before its deliberation. But in an opinion by Mosk, the court said the mistakes were harmless. (People v. Wright, crim. 23685)

Times staff writer Bella Stumbo in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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