Tour guide (copy) (copy)

The City of Charleston has required paid tour guides to pass a test based on a nearly 500-page manual. A judge struck down that policy Friday. File/Dave Munday/Staff

A federal judge struck down Charleston's tour-guide licensing law Friday, saying it violates free speech rights.

U.S. District Judge David Norton issued his ruling Friday after hearing four days of arguments and testimony in April.

Charleston requires paid tour guides to pass a test based on a nearly 500-page manual to get a license.

"The licensing law imposes real burdens on those hoping to be tour guides in Charleston," Norton wrote in his decision. 

He said the court "has no choice but to strike the licensing law down as unconstitutional under the First Amendment."

Jack O'Toole, spokesman for Mayor John Tecklenburg, said the city was disappointed with Norton's ruling. It has not decided whether to appeal. 

“City attorneys are currently reviewing the judge's order and expect to have recommendations for next steps early next week," O'Toole said in a statement.

The Institute of Justice, a free-speech group based in Arlington, Va., sued the city in January 2016 on behalf of three people who had taken the test and found it overly burdensome.

The plaintiffs argued the city was trying to control their speech by making them focus on numerous historical and architectural details that had nothing to do with the stories they wanted to share with visitors.

Attorneys for the city argued that tour guides were free to say whatever they wanted, but that the city had an interest in making sure the details were right, since Charleston's history and architecture are key components to its popularity as a tourist destination.

"Both parties spent substantial briefing and testimony on whether the city’s motivation in enacting the licensing law was content-neutral," Norton wrote. "The court sees no need to answer that question. Even assuming that the city’s motive was content-neutral, the court finds that the licensing law fails to pass constitutional muster even under the more lenient intermediate scrutiny standard applied to content-neutral laws."

There is no evidence that the city ever tried to achieve its goal of giving tourists quality tours by using less burdensome methods, Norton pointed out. 

The Institute of Justice has also successfully challenged tour-guide licensing laws in Savannah, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

"The First Amendment protects your right to speak for a living, whether you’re a journalist, a stand-up comedian or a tour guide,” Robert McNamara, an attorney for the group, said in a statement. "Today’s opinion vindicates that principle, and we look forward to yet more victories for occupational speech in the months and years to come."

During the bench trial, McNamara asked former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley if he had ever studied how other cities regulated tour guides.

"I said no," Riley answered, according to the transcript that was released last month. "And there's no city like Charleston, so the requirement that we have for something is different and more than any other city."

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Riley dismissed several questions about what other cities do as "irrelevant."

The tour-guide manual was written by the Historic Charleston Foundation. One of the plaintiffs, Michael Nolan of West Ashley, testified that he found it impossible to master.

"Well, I'm a book editor, and it is one of the messiest, most imponderable books I have ever come across," he said during the trial. "It's just 500 pages of fact after fact .... I'd have to memorize 2,000 different houses to be able to know that I would pass that test."

Another plaintiff, Kimberly Billups, said she recalled a question on the test about the architect of a funeral home.

"And when you had the idea of the type of stories you wanted to tell, was architecture of a funeral home part of that?" Institute of Justice attorney Arif Panju asked her.

"No, sir," she said.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.