City tweaking tour guide license rules

A handful of would-be tour guides take the city’s licensing test inside the Charleston Maritime Center last year.

One week before its lawyers appear in court to defend Charleston’s tour guide licensing, City Council changed the rules.

Some of the proposed changes approved Tuesday night directly address issues raised in the federal lawsuit. Others update the city’s code to reflect its current practices.

Next Tuesday, the city’s lawyers and attorneys for three plaintiffs are scheduled to make arguments before a federal judge as to whether the city’s practice of licensing tour guides should be stopped until their lawsuit is resolved.

The plaintiffs include three people who took the city’s tour guide exam but failed. Their attorney, Robert McNamara, said the proposed changes are positive but won’t end the lawsuit.

“It’s definitely a reaction to our lawsuit, and it’s a clear concession by city officials that they don’t think their law is going to look good to a federal judge. They’re justifiably worried,” he said. “This is the equivalent of getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar and offering to put half the cookies back.”

Currently, anyone giving a tour for pay on Charleston’s streets must be licensed, which requires passing 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.

The city currently has more than 500 registered guides, and its attorneys have defended the licensing practice.

City spokesman Jack O’Toole said City Council voted to approve the following changes:

Revising tour guide exam requirements to lower the pass-fail threshold from 80 percent to 70 percent. In the last three years, 344 took the test and 164 passed. Another 81 would have passed at a 70 percent cutoff.

Eliminating the oral portion of the test. “It is fair to say no one has ever been denied a license because they couldn’t pass the oral test,” O’Toole said.

Deleting the category of “temporary tour guide,” which allowed some guides to work before passing the test.

Increasing the frequency in which the test is offered from once every three months to twice a month.

Amending city code to reflect the city’s existing policy requiring tour guides to complete four continuing education programs within three years. Those who fail to do so must retake the test to renew their license, but guides who have held their license for 25 years or longer would be exempt from continuing education rules.

Clarifying that anyone who leads a school group around the city does not need a tour guide license.

McNamara said the larger issue — whether the city’s tour guide licensing infringes upon the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment — is not addressed by these changes.

“This case is about the very simple proposition of who is and isn’t qualified to speak for the city of Charleston,” he said. “It’s not government officials’ job to decide who is allowed to speak. It’s the public job to decide who they want to listen to.”

McNamara works for the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that previously has challenged the legality of tour guide licensing in other cities.

It prevailed in Savannah, which did away with such licenses last year. And it also helped convince Philadelphia not to adopt such a system.

But New Orleans’ tour guide licensing program prevailed after it was challenged in court.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.