I was on The Indepenents tonight discussing some of the spooky Hallowe'en-themed law out there. I mentioned the case of Stambovsky v. Ackley, the 1991 decision from New York's Appellate Division which held a house sale invalid because the seller did not disclose that the house was "haunted." The house had a reputation in the neighborhood for being haunted, and the court, in an opinion full of wry humor, held that since the seller had long claimed the house was haunted, she was not allowed to claim now that it was not. She was, in the legal terminology, "estopped" from denying it was haunted. That meant, as the court concluded, "as a matter of law, the house is haunted." You can read the decision here.
I also mentioned cases involving the free speech rights of psychics. In Spiritual Psychic Science Church v. City of Azusa (1985), the California Supreme Court struck down an ordinance that prohibited fortune-telling, on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. The court specifically held that it was not "commercial speech," and that although the government can prohibit fraud, it could not just impose a blanket ban against fortune telling. But in Nike v. Kasky (2002), the California Supreme Court expanded the definition of commmercial speech so broadly, that fortune telling is now arguably commercial speech, and might be subject to censorship. I don't think that would or should fly, and in fact the Eighth Circuit held in Argello v. City of Lincoln that fortune telling is fully protected free speech. But that's just why that Kasky decision is so awful.
Finally, I mentioned the famous case of Rex v. Dudley & Stephens, the 1884 British decision about cannibalism on the high seas. The court found the crewmen guilty of murder because they killed the cabin boy and ate him. They ought to have drawn straws to decide who would die--which is just what the crewmen of a different shipwreck, the whaleship Essex, did. The Essex disaster, by the way, inspired Moby Dick as well as Lon Fuller's classic The Case of the Speluncean Explorers, and a film about the Essex disaster, directed by Ron Howard, will be released in March.
Happy Hallowe'en, folks.