Judge hears Charleston’s tour guide licensing case (copy)

A federal judge ruled that Charleston's process for licensing tour guides is unconstitutional and violates free speech rights. File

For the first time in decades, people may give tours of Charleston with only a business license.

Last week, U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that the city's tour guide licensing practice violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

Carol Ervin, an attorney for the city of Charleston, said Monday that as a result of the ruling, the city will cease enforcement of its tour guide licensing requirements.

"The city is disappointed with this result and plans to ask the court to reconsider the ruling, and may appeal to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals if necessary," Ervin said in a statement. "In the interim, the city will be weighing its options to protect its residents, tourism economy, and visitors consistent with the judge’s decision.”

Robert McNamara, an attorney for the Institute for Justice and represented the tour guides challenging the city's law, said the city could seek a stay to keep the licensing in place during a possible appeal.

"The difficulty it’s going to have with that is the same difficulty as it had with the case in the first place," he said. "Under this ruling, someone who gets a city business license and follows all the city’s laws can talk to tourists. ... What danger do they possibly pose?"

The case was argued in front of Norton in April. For decades, the city has required anyone giving paid tours to have a license, which they had to obtain by passing a test on their knowledge of the city's 300 year-plus history. The city and the Historic Charleston Foundation even produced a 500-page book for would-be guides to study.

The three plaintiffs said the city was trying to control their speech by making them focus on historical and architectural details that had nothing to do with the stories they wanted to share with visitors. Once the lawsuit was filed, the city weakened the testing rules but still kept the concept in place.

The city's attorneys argued that the city has an interest in making sure the details given by tour guides are correct.

Norton's ruling did not address the content of the city's tour guide manual or testing but did find its licensing law "imposes real burdens on those hoping to be tour guides in Charleston.”

One plaintiff, Kimberly Billups, testified she faced a question about the architect of a funeral home, though that was not part of any story about the city she wanted to tell.

Would-be tour guides still must get a city business license.

If the city were to appeal, it might have a chance. An appeals court upheld New Orleans' tour guide licensing, though a different appeals court struck down such licensing in Washington, D.C.

Both Savannah and Philadelphia decided to abandon their tour guide licensing practices after the Institute of Justice challenged their legality. Meanwhile, New York, Williamsburg, Va., and St. Augustine, Fla., still license their guides.

Asked if they face any legal challenge, McNamara said, "I never make threats, but it certainly seems to be the lay of the land that cities would be well advised to repeal their tour guide licensing requirements.”

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.