tour bus (copy)

An Adventure Sightseeing bus loads passengers at the Charleston Visitors Center Tuesday morning. Dozens of buses go in and out of the shelter all day long. All Charleston tour guides have passed an exam to be licensed, but the city dropped that requirement this week after a judge said it's an infringement on free speech. 

Charleston’s economy depends on tourism. Tourists come here mostly because of the city’s rich and well-preserved history. And those tourists would presumably prefer to learn about that history from reasonably qualified, well-educated tour guides.

To that end, city officials have long required that tour guides pass a fairly extensive test on the city’s history and architecture in order to get a license.

On Aug. 3, U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that the licensing program conflicted with the First Amendment rights of would-be tour guides and struck down that requirement.

The notion that a licensing program steps on the free speech of tour guides is a dubious one. After all, the city doesn’t regulate the content of tours, meaning licensed guides have always been free to say whatever they want. The testing initiative was more about quality control than policing speech.

South Carolina licenses people in soil classification, pyrotechnic safety and more than 130 other occupations. Why not tour guides?

But at least for now, the ruling stands. Charleston ended its licensing program officially on Monday. There are other options, however, for moving forward in a way that free speech advocates say wouldn’t step on people’s First Amendment protections.

“Charleston can administer exactly the same test from exactly the same book and let people who pass wear a little blue badge that says ‘city certified guide,’” said Robert McNamara, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who argued the case on behalf of three local tour guides.

“The only difference is that the city doesn’t have the power to point to a person and say ‘you can’t talk to a group of people who want to listen to you,’” he said.

Fair enough.

City officials are still considering all available options, including appealing the ruling, but a voluntary licensing program is probably the most straightforward approach. Cities like Philadelphia and Savannah have implemented similar initiatives, and don’t seem to have suffered any dip in tourism numbers or a rise in wildly misinformed tourists.

On the contrary, Philadelphia saw a record number of visitors for the eighth year in a row last year. Savannah broke a record, too. So the risk of getting an overly embellished history of those cities doesn’t seem to be driving people away.

And already a coalition of Charleston carriage tour companies has stepped forward to say that its guides will still be required to pass the city test.

Charleston’s various preservation and neighborhood groups also could offer stamps of approval to particularly worthy tour organizations. The Historic Charleston Foundation wrote the book for the city’s test, so it might be well-positioned to help vouch for the guides who really know their stuff.

Being told that the first shots of the Civil War were fired at California Dreaming (the restaurant looks more than a little like Fort Sumter) won’t really harm anyone, per se. At least not in the sense that an unlicensed dentist might harm someone.

But paying tourists would presumably prefer to get a more accurate version of Charleston’s centuries of history. And people who love this city and its many stories would prefer that visitors go home happy and well-informed. Our history is a part of who we are.

If licensing really can’t be required, then city officials and local nonprofit organizations need to work together to come up with a way to help people pick the best tour guides and avoid scams.

Until then, caveat emptor.