Healing Hinckley

Interpreters walk in front of the Colonial courthouse along Duke of Gloucester street in the Colonial Williamsburg area of Williamsburg, Va. File/Steve Helber/AP

One of the most popular historic cities in the U.S. is removing its testing requirement for tour guides, citing the ongoing legal battle over Charleston's licensing program. 

Williamsburg, Va. will switch its program from mandatory to voluntary, mirroring changes Charleston made in August after a federal judge's ruling barred the city from enforcing mandatory city-issued certifications for tour guides. 

The move was approved unanimously by Williamsburg City Council last Thursday. Tests will still be administered for guides who want to be city-certified, but they will not be required. 

Lawsuits challenging testing requirements for tour guides have been challenged in several U.S. cities, including New Orleans, Savannah and, most recently, Charleston. 

The Arlington, Va.-based free speech group Institute for Justice, representing individuals who say they attempted Charleston's tour guide exam, filed a lawsuit against the city in early 2016. In mid-2018, U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled in their favor, saying Charleston's licensing requirements violate free speech rights. 

Following a denial of the city's request that Norton reconsider, Charleston filed a notice of appeal with the Fourth District Court of Appeals last Wednesday. The court's jurisdiction includes West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. 

If the Fourth Circuit Court upholds the district court's ruling, that decision would be binding to the city of Williamsburg, city attorney Christina Shelton explained at Thursday's Williamsburg council meeting. 

The adopted ordinance notes that Williamsburg "wishes to retain testing," but wants to make testing voluntary until the appeals court issues a ruling.

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Because of the switch, the city of Williamsburg will start posting a list of guides who have been certified by the city, Shelton said at the meeting.

Shelton also mentioned the Palmetto Guild, a group recently formed in Charleston in response to the ruling. The guild was formed to support and promote city-certified guides only. There may be opportunities for Williamsburg to find similar ways of bolstering its certification program while testing is optional, she said. 

Williamsburg's police department administers the city's tour guide exam, which is divided into four multiple choice sections: general Colonial history, specific Colonial Williamsburg history, general tour mechanics and public safety issues. 

Testing and licensing for tour guides has been required in Williamsburg since 1992. Under the new rules, tour guides will still be required to meet several criteria, including an age restriction and a business license requirement. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.