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Before they can legally take paying customers sightseeing in Savannah, local tour guides must first pass a 100-question test on the city’s history, key landmarks and architecture. The textbook for the exam is a 111-page manual that City Hall produced.
Savannah officials say the testing and licensing requirements for tour guides ensure they have a base level of knowledge about Georgia’s oldest city. Tour guide Michelle Fleenor sees it as local government meddling with small business owners and unfairly singling out tourism workers who talk for a living.
“They say all the time ‘we want our tour guides to…,’ but we’re not your tour guides. We’re privately owned businesses,” said Fleenor, who started Savannah Belle Walking Tours six years ago. “If I’m going to hire an employee, it should be up to me. I should be the one asking questions.”
Fleenor was among a small group of Savannah tour guides that sued the city in federal court last November, saying a 1978 ordinance requiring them to earn a city license violates their free speech rights. Both sides recently asked a U.S. District Court judge to decide the case from the bench, without a jury trial.
City Hall’s attorneys said licensing tour guides is a perfectly legal use of the local government’s “police power to regulate business.” They argue that deciding who’s qualified to give sightseeing tours is vital to protecting Savannah’s $2.29 billion tourism economy. The city has about 330 licensed guides.
“We want tour guides to be knowledgeable about Savannah and its history, but we don’t in any way tell them what to say,” W. Brooks Stillwell III, Savannah’s city attorney, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Legal motions filed July 30 by the tour guides’ attorneys take aim at the testing requirement and the city’s official tour guide manual, which the test questions are drawn from, saying their true purpose is “to regulate the content of speech.”
“By limiting the universe of speakers to those who have memorized and regurgitated the City’s official version of Savannah history, the City plainly hopes to ensure that tour guides draw upon that official narrative in their speech to tourists,” wrote attorneys for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which filed the suit on behalf of the tour guides.
Rulings by other federal courts in similar cases have been divided. In Washington, D.C., an appellate court threw out licensing rules for tour guides. But a different appeals court upheld similar rules in New Orleans.
The Savannah lawsuit also challenges a $1-per-adult customer tax that tour guides must pay, noting City Hall doesn’t impose the same fee on other tourism-based businesses.
City budget documents show the special tour guide tax was projected to bring in $660,000 last year. The $10 annual fee for a tour guide license and $100 fee to take the history test were worth between $6,910 and $14,230 in annual revenues from 2011 to 2014.
In a deposition filed as part of the case, Savannah’s tourism management director, Bridget Lidy, said one important role of licensing tour guides is deterring criminals and scam artists. To earn their license, tour guides must submit to a background check.
“One example that I can give is if there’s a convicted child molester and that child molester is giving tours and he’s not licensed, he didn’t go through a background check and he all of a sudden is giving tours to Girl Scouts, there’s a huge problem there,” Lidy said in her deposition.
Girl Scouts are frequent visitors to Savannah, where Juliette Gordon Low founded the organization in 1912.
When asked how many applicants had been denied tour guide licenses because they had criminal histories, Lidy said she knew of none.
The tour guide test consists of 100 questions, most of them multiple-choice. It’s based on the tour guide manual written in 2005 and 2006 by Barbara Fertig, a history professor at Armstrong State University in Savannah. City Hall paid for her to write the book and test questions.
In a sworn statement filed with the court case, Fertig said she disagreed with the city’s decision to use a multiple-choice test, which relies on retention of names and dates. Fertig said she gave a version of the city’s test to her own students. Many of them flunked it.
“I personally could not have done well on that test,” said Fertig, who drafted 500 multiple-choice questions for possible use, “even after writing the questions myself.”