Tour guide (copy)

Charleston is being sued over its ordinance stating only licensed tour guides can explain the city's history for money. File/Dave Munday/Staff

Charleston tour guides have a date in federal court Thursday to argue that a city ordinance requiring them be licensed is unconstitutional.

The hearing in U.S. District Court at the Four Corners of Law will pit free-speech rights against a local government's ability to regulate businesses. It is expected to last about an hour, according to the Institute for Justice. 

"The U.S. Constitution protects the right to talk for a living, whether you are a journalist, stand-up comedian or a tour guide," the Institute for Justice said in a statement Wednesday.

The Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization represents Kim Billups, Mike Warfield and Michael Nolan, who filed a lawsuit over the regulation in January 2016. The city's request to dismiss the complaint was denied in July.

Both sides then declined Judge David Norton's recommendation that they resolve the dispute privately, through mediation, according to court records.

Charleston was among the first cities in the nation to require licenses for tour guides who get paid for their services. Its program stretches back more than 50 years and, until last year, included an oral test.

Currently, guides-for-hire must pass a two-hour, 200-question written exam that costs $50, not including a copy of the city's nearly $49 tour guide manual. In 2015, more than 540 guides obtained licenses.

The city countered that the case is not about First Amendment rights.

“Importantly, the ordinance does not regulate the message that is conveyed on licensed tours," Charleston attorneys said in a court filing. "The ordinance does not control what licensed tour guides say. Tour guides are free to present whatever message they wish on their tours. The ordinance has no restraints on opinion, and no topic is off limits.”

Rather, the licensing requirement is in place to protect consumers, "a common sense way to ensure that tour guides are qualified to charge the public fees for their services,” according to the city.

Billups, Warfield and Nolan are seeking a ruling overturning the longstanding ordinance and $1 each "in nominal damages, along with any other legal or equitable relief the court may deem just or appropriate."

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott