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Savannah fell to British troops in the American Revolution and surrendered to the Union Army during the Civil War. Now Georgia’s oldest city is preparing to retreat from a law that for decades has required tour guides to prove to City Hall that they know history.
The Savannah City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposed repeal of tour guide regulations — in place since 1978 — that require all guides to earn a city license by passing a history test before they can take paying customers sightseeing. The repeal is expected to pass as the city faces litigation by tour guides who sued in federal court.
Attorney W. Brooks Stillwell, who represents the city, has advised council members to scrap the regulations before a federal judge decides the lawsuit.
“I’m disappointed,” said Councilman Van Johnson, who refrained from defending the regulations at a recent meeting. “But I also realize that when you come up against the U.S. Constitution, you lose.”
A small group of local tour guides sued City Hall in U.S. District Court last November, saying Savannah’s licensing ordinance violates the free-speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment by unfairly singling out tourism workers who talk for a living. To earn a license, guides must pass a 100-question test covering topics from Savannah’s 1820 yellow fever outbreak to the architects of its historic homes. The study guide for the test is a 111-page book produced by City Hall.
Decisions 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.
Robert McNamara, an attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which represents the tour guides, said he was confident the council was headed toward repeal.
“This is, in no uncertain terms, a surrender on their part,” he said.
But Michelle Freenor, owner of Savannah Belle Walking Tours and one of the tour guides who sued the city, said she won’t declare victory just yet.
“It sounds like it’s headed in the right direction,” Freenor said. “It’s sad it took suing the city to get them to listen to us.”
City attorneys for months insisted that licensing tour guides was a perfectly legal use of the local government’s “police power to regulate business.” They also argued 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 don’t want people who don’t know what they’re doing out there conducting tour services,” Stillwell told The Associated Press in a previous interview. “We do not regulate what they talk about or what they say. But we want to make sure they know what they’re talking about.”
The city attorney told council members at their last meeting Oct. 1 that the lawsuit prompted the city’s staff to take a closer look at the tour guide ordinance and recommend changes that would take “some of the issues off the table.”
“We believe the private sector can do a better job of training and certifying tour guides, but without the government having a role in it,” Stillwell said.
Both sides over the summer asked a judge to decide the case without a jury trial. A ruling is still pending.
Even if Savannah repeals licensing and testing requirements, portions of the tour guide’s lawsuit will still need to be resolved in court.
City Hall isn’t backing off a $1-per-adult customer tax tour guides are required to pay. City spokesman Bret Bell said the fee, which was projected to bring in $660,000 last year, is needed for maintenance on Savannah’s historic monuments. Tour guides argue the fee is unfair because other tourism-based businesses don’t have to pay it.