ACLU takes case of fortune teller: Charleston faces possible free-speech challenge

Charleston police photographed Jonathan Spiel and his fortune-telling stand after warning him that he needed a permit to set up on city sidewalks. Making a free speech argument, his attorney hopes a judge will dismiss four permit violations and a disorderly conduct arrest.

City of Charleston Police

A nomadic fortune teller came to Charleston last year and set up his chairs, table, cards, mirrors and candles on busy downtown sidewalks, often with his big dog lying beside him.

City police on bicycles cited him over and over again for lacking the proper permit before eventually taking him to jail for refusing to shut down.

Fearing another arrest, the nomadic fortune teller moved along to the next city, but not before the American Civil Liberties Union took up his case and raised a First Amendment question: Had city police violated his right to free speech?

Jonathan Spiel, sometimes donning a tie and a cowboy hat as he read fortunes, first registered on the police radar in March 2010. Officers wrote him four tickets for making charitable solicitations without a permit, though they later dropped the charges after deciding he didn't need that specific permit.

What he did need, according to police, was an "encroachment permit" to set up on the sidewalk. In May 2010 they issued him four more tickets.

The last time they saw Spiel, again in May 2010, he sat in a wheelchair with a makeshift table draped across it. An officer told Spiel that if he didn't tear down his card-reading operation, she would arrest him on disorderly conduct charges.

Spiel stood up and walked to her, presenting himself to be handcuffed.

Susan Dunn, the ACLU's South Carolina legal director, describes her client as a street performer who accepted donations. She hopes a livability court judge will dismiss the tickets as an imposition on Spiel's free speech.

In her court filings, Dunn argues that police used the "encroachment fee" to remove him when a peddling statute failed.

"The facts imply that he has been targeted because his presence is somehow offensive," the filing says.

"To allow him to be so targeted will allow this statute to be used to target others who also used items of furniture in the exercise of free speech."

Dunn asks if artists painting on easels or volunteers seeking petition signatures could face similar scrutiny. "If it is fortune telling today, what will it be tomorrow?" she said.

Ravi Sanyal, an attorney representing the city, argues that police can regulate people setting up on sidewalks to protect pedestrians and drivers, to prevent traffic jams and to preserve Charleston's visual appeal. He wants convictions on the charges against Spiel: a $262 fine for disorderly conduct and four encroachment violations at $470 each.

"The issue is not a factual dispute, only a constitutional argument," Sanyal said.

Both sides plan to review court transcripts and file orders for a judge to review before ruling. No date has been set.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.