Philly tour guides testy over licensing

Visitors to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia listen to a Park Service guide.


Kai Ryssdal: Historical tourism's what you might call a specialty in Philadelphia. That's one reason city officials are trying to get rid of tour guides who mix a little fiction with their fact. They've passed a new licensing law to try to safeguard the historical record. But some of the guides themselves say Philadelphia needs its own history lesson in the Bill of Rights. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: When tourists come to Independence Hall, they often turn to professional tour guides with questions about the city's history.

Rider: What years was Philadelphia the capital?

Driver: Well, from 1790 to 1800. Both George Washington and John Adams lived in Philadelphia during their presidencies.

A lot of tour guides -- including this horse-and-buggy driver -- know their stuff. But some don't. And that's what bothers Ron Avery. He's a former newspaper reporter who's become a sort of unofficial watchdog for local tour guides.

RON Avery: There's myths that nobody ever examines. They just repeat them. And because it's been repeated for years, therefore it must be true.

Avery says he once heard a guide point out the spot where George Washington and Abraham Lincoln ate lunch together. Blatant fabrications like that one prompted a new law requiring tour guides to take a two-hour history test. But some Philadelphia tour guides say the law ignores one important historical precedent: the First Amendment.

ROBERT McNamara: The city government has essentially said that they need to have power to fine people up to $300 for engaging in unauthorized talking. There is nothing less American than a fine for unauthorized talking.

Lawyer Robert McNamara from the libertarian Institute For Justice argued his case Friday on behalf of three plaintiffs, including longtime tour guide Ann Boulais. She says the new law wouldn't really help.

Ann Boulais: We're talking history. But we're also being entertainers. Just because I can pass a test doesn't make me a good tour guide.

But city officials insist the new law does not violate anyone's First Amendment rights, because it only requires a one-time test, without any ongoing supervision. History buff Ron Avery agrees.

Avery: As a guide, you have total freedom of speech. No one will ever fine you, arrest you, follow you around marking down your mistakes.

A ruling is expected in the coming months. If the courts toss out Philadelphia's licensing law, similar rules in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and elsewhere could be vulnerable.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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Better still - look at what San Antonio did in the 80s to improve the tourist experience - they trained EVERYONE, no licenses.

It's odd that Ms. Thatcher assumes the tour guides are state employees. In fact, they are not. They are private tour guides offering tours for a fee. They have the same First Amendment rights as the authors of history books or travel guides.

Was the Marketplace editor off-duty today? "Philly Guides testy..." ends with the comment, "As a guide, you have total freedom of speech. No one will ever fine you, arrest you, follow you around marking down your mistakes." The problem is, the comment is from Ron Avery, the former newspaper reporter who decries the inaccuracies told by tour guides. In short, he IS following the guides around, marking their mistakes. This was the whole point of the story - or would have been, until Avery contradicted his own actions and thus the story itself. Thank heaven the kids came in with the delightful Shel Silverstein poem to bail out the broadcast. One hopes future programs will leave self-contradiction to Fox News.

I don't understand how requiring State employees to take a test to demonstrate competency in their profession violates the 1st amendment. Would Mr.McNamara consider my first amendment rights violated since I was required to take a competency exam before I became a mathematics teacher? It's the same principle. People can say whatever they want, but when someone is acting in a certain office, such as teacher or tour guide, they should first demonstrate competency in said office. It seems pretty clear to me.

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