City tour guides challenge licensing


Charleston is one of just a handful of cities that require tour guides to pass a test and buy a license — and it’s now being subject to the same legal challenge that other cities have faced.

At issue is whether such licenses run afoul of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech. Federal appeals court rulings have offered mixed views to date.

On Thursday morning, Arif Panju and Robert McNamara, two attorneys with the Washington-based Institute for Justice, have scheduled a press conference in front of the federal courthouse at Broad and Meeting streets. They will be joined by their plaintiffs, including Kim Billups, owner of Charleston Belle Tours and tour guides Mike Warfield and Michael Nolan.

“There are thousands of stories to be told about Charleston, but the city makes it illegal to tell stories to tour groups without getting a government-mandated license,” the institute said in a news release Wednesday.

Currently, the city’s tour guides must pass both a two-hour, 200-question written exam and an oral exam in which they are graded on their verbal descriptions and storytelling. It costs $50 to register for the test, not including a copy of the city’s tour guide manual, which costs $48.83.

Last year, more than 540 had done that and received a license.

The city was one of the nation’s first to require such licenses and began its program more than 50 years ago.

Liz Alston, a licensed tour guide and chair of Charleston’s Tourism Commission, said she has heard few complaints about the city’s tour guide licensing program and hopes the city prevails.

“You have to have a license to teach. You have to have a license to drive. You have to have a license to get married,” she said. “I see no value in disqualifying the laws that have worked so well.”

City spokesman Jack O’Toole said the city’s attorneys haven’t seen the lawsuit, so they can’t comment on it, but he said they feel the city’s licensing program is sound and serves the public interest.

The Institute of Justice has filed four other lawsuits challenging guide licenses elsewhere, and it recently won its challenge in Savannah. That city repealed its law in October.

Seven years ago, McNamara helped convince the city of Philadelphia not to adopt such a system, and his legal challenge in Washington prevailed in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The city’s new tour guide regulations, issued last year, don’t mention testing.

But McNamara did not succeed in a similar case in New Orleans.

McNamara said Wednesday that Charleston’s law is different, “and not in ways that help Charleston.”

He said the city’s law “is much more clearly motivated by concerns about speech than other tour guide laws we’ve challenged; Charleston is the only place, for example, that has an oral exam for guides.

“This matters a lot: If a city says, ‘You can’t physically escort a large group of people unless you have passed a traffic-safety test,’ that’s one thing. If they say, ‘We don’t want you conveying this kind of information until we deem you qualified to speak,’ then the First Amendment poses a big problem.”

He said the city’s “unusual” licensing program “makes it clear they’re worried about what guides say, and that’s unconstitutional — just as it would be unconstitutional for Charleston to put itself in charge of ensuring that journalists are thorough or stand-up comedians are funny.”

The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to clear up the conflicting appeals court rulings, but it declined to do so early last year.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at