On mild days along the Georgia Coast, you’ll find “Savannah Dan” leading tours of the city’s downtown historic district. Dan Leger is easy to spot in his traditional Southern garb of a straw hat, bow tie and seersucker suit.
Leger is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by tour guides in several popular vacation spots. Savannah, Georgia, and some other cities require tour guides to obtain a special license to give tours. The plaintiffs say that violates their First Amendment free-speech rights.
Savannah’s requirements – take a test, get a health exam, and pass a criminal background check – are time-consuming and unnecessary, Leger says.
“What my physical fitness has to do with walking around and telling stories, I have no idea,” he says.
Officials with the city of Savannah say these requirements protect tourists’ safety, and ensure that guides have at least a minimum knowledge of the city’s history and architecture.
But the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, is challenging the law and similar ones in New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Senior attorney Robert McNamara says the cases test whether Americans have the basic right to speak for a living. McNamara says the market, rather than the government, should decide if a tour company stays in business.
“We pay people to give lectures; we pay people to tutor us in math; we pay people to talk on the radio,” he says. “And no serious person believes that those people are somehow outside the first amendment.”
In Washington, D.C, officials say the issue is not free speech, but consumer protection. Matt Orlins is a Legislative and Public Affairs Officer with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
“The licensure requirement is not there to judge whether someone provides a good tour or a bad tour,” Orlins says. “They’re there to ensure that you’re complying with the law.”
The District of Columbia has dropped its requirement that tour guides take content tests to prove their knowledge of the city. But guides still must have a license — at least for now. The Institute for Justice is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on whether licenses for tour guides are constitutional.
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