Assure tour guide credibility

Horse carriage tour, with licensed guides, are some of visitors' favorites. ( Leroy Burnell/ 6/25/10 )

The City of Charleston recently made some good adjustments to the rules governing tour guides. They make the licensing process more accessible and winnow out requirements that over the years have proven unnecessary.

But fortunately, the city didn’t capitulate to a lawsuit saying the testing process is unconstitutional.

Robert McNamara, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., has filed a suit on behalf of three people who took the city’s tour guide exam and failed. The lawsuit claims that requiring licensing infringes upon the right to freedom of speech. U.S. District Judge David Norton heard arguments Tuesday.

And while this newspaper would be the first to stand up for freedom of speech, the tour guide licensing process doesn’t prevent anyone from taking people on tours and saying whatever he wants.

It does, however, prevent non-licensed people from presenting themselves as tour guides and charging money to show people around.

Licensed tour guides are like real estate agents who must be licensed. Or contractors. Or cosmetologists. The public needs to know if tour guides are knowledgeable, and the licensing process ensures a threshold of competency.

And clearly the tour guide test, while rigorous, is not overly so. At present, the city has more than 500 registered guides.

That means they have passed both a two-hour, 200-question written exam and an oral exam to assess their verbal ability. The registration fee is $50.

The revised rules include changing a passing grade from 80 to 70, eliminating the oral portion and offering the exam twice a month rather than four times a year.

Someone leading a school group around the city does not need a license.

City of Charleston attorneys have defended the licensing process in the past. The Institute for Justice has won one such suit in Washington, D.C. but lost one in New Orleans.

There is nothing to stop someone from asking a non-licensed person to build a house. But it is to the advantage of the public to know who is skilled enough to do it. And it’s to the advantage of the public in general for governmental bodies to keep charlatans from bilking people.

Charleston’s economy relies heavily on tourism. Visitors — and residents — should be confident that city tours are dependable. The tour guides license has worked quite well in providing that assurance.

It has nothing to do with restricting speech, but with assuring that tour guides speak accurately.