If only East Ridge city officials had listened to Candice Wohlfeil in the beginning, she could have told them they would lose.
After all, the 60-year-old woman is a fortune teller.
On Friday, the city and attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union settled a lawsuit Wohlfeil filed in federal court last October when East Ridge officials closed down Wohlfeil’s fortune-telling stall at the East Ridge Flea Market.
An ACLU attorney confirmed that the city had to pay legal fees but did not disclose the amount.
Reached by phone Friday, Wohlfeil said that when the city made her close up shop, she did her homework, looking up similar cases in which cities all over the United States had tried to limit fortune-telling within their boundaries.
Mostly, the cities lost.
So Wohlfeil went to a East Ridge City Council meeting with paperwork, showing council members where previous laws had been struck down by courts.
They said they’d look into it and get back to her.
About six weeks passed and so did her livelihood. So she called the ACLU, which filed a complaint in federal court claming that the city was violating Wohlfeil’s right to free speech.
“(These cases) come up often,” said Tricia Herzfeld, legal director for ACLU of Tennessee. “I think the case law is pretty clear on this. You can’t discriminate on the content of someone’s speech.”
Neither East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert, Vice Mayor Larry Sewell nor city attorney Ronald Wells immediately returned calls for comment on Friday.
Herzfeld’s office fought a similar law in Dickson, Tenn., in 2003 and won.
Last week, the ACLU filed another federal suit against the city of Sevierville for limiting fortune telling.
Once Wohlfeil filed her case, Chief U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier issued an immediate injunction of the East Ridge city law, allowing her to continue working as the courts sorted out the case.
“It did, in the long run, help my business,” she said.
While she was blocked from working, she still went to the market to tell customers why she couldn’t read their fortunes.
Wohlfeil described an outpouring of support, even from people who disapproved, on religious grounds, to her work.
“It was really an eye-opening experience,” she said.
People would come to her and say they didn’t believe in what she does for a living, but thought the city had no right to close her down.
As the court case rolled along, the City Council again took up the outdated statute, officially repealing it in January. Wohlfeil has been reading fortunes throughout, since Collier’s injunction.
That was what she wanted all along, she said, which is why she did not ask for money in the lawsuit, just for the law to be changed.
Originally from Wisconsin, Wohlfeil has practiced her craft all over the country and said she was surprised it took a court case to resolve the issue.
“This was the first place I was told they had a law against it,” she said.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...