Tour guide lawsuit trial

A federal judge is expected late this summer to issue a ruling on Charleston's requirement that tour guides must pass a test to be licensed. File/Dave Munday/Staff

A ruling in the lawsuit over Charleston's requirement that tour guides must pass a test to be licensed is expected late this summer.

U.S. District Court Judge David Norton listened to four days of arguments last week over whether the city's rules violate the First Amendment by regulating the content of speech. He told attorneys he expects to make a decision by August.

The Institute for Justice, a civil-liberties group based in Arlington, Va., sued the city two years ago.

“This was a four-day trial to show the court that that the government does not get to pick who gets to tell stories for a living," Arif Panju, a lead attorney for the institute, said Monday.

Panju said the city could promote certified tour guides without infringing on the rights of others who want to tell different stories. He said it's fine to require a general business license for guides who charge money.

"The bottom line here is you shouldn’t have to pass a test to tell a story," he said.

The city has maintained that testing is necessary to protect the tourism industry, since it's largely based on the city's history.

"The evidence presented during the trial shows that the tour guide licensing exam focuses on Charleston’s history and historic attractions because paying customers are most likely to seek guides on these topics," defense attorney Carol Ervin said Monday. "The city is confident that its licensing process for tour guides does not violate the First Amendment."

The city's 200-question test is based on a 490-page manual prepared by the Historic Charleston Foundation. The city changed the passing grade from 80 percent to 70 percent and dropped a requirement for an oral exam in April 2016 after the suit was filed. Two of the three plaintiffs who initially failed the test were granted licenses based on the new standards but continued with the lawsuit anyway.

This is the fifth time the institute has challenged a city over the tour-guide test requirement and has lost only once.

A federal appeals court ruled that the policy in Washington, D.C., violated the U.S. Constitution.

Savannah and Philadelphia dropped their licensing requirements after they were sued.

On the other hand, a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld licensing in New Orleans. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.