An attorney for three would-be tour guides told a federal judge Tuesday they shouldn’t have to pass a test and get a license to earn a living telling tales about historic Charleston, while a lawyer for the city insisted requiring licenses for guides is a lawful business regulation.
In a lawsuit similar to cases in other historic cities, the three are challenging an ordinance requiring tour guides to pass a 200-question test based on a nearly 500-page manual in order to receive a license. Applicants also must pass an oral exam.
The plaintiffs “seek to do nothing more than to tell stories about Charleston,” attorney Arif Panju told U.S. District Judge David Norton. Panju said requiring a license violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.
The three plaintiffs all failed the licensing exam.
While Panju asked Norton to issue an injunction blocking the ordinance, attorney Carol Ervin argued for the city that the judge should toss out the case.
She said the ordinance isn’t about restricting free speech but is a legal means to regulate businesses in the tourism industry that attracts millions to Charleston each year.
“The ordinance does not control speech, it regulates occupational conduct,” she argued. Ervin said the city doesn’t monitor what guides say about the city and that anyone can give a tour for free.
A federal appeals court has upheld a similar licensing ordinance in New Orleans.
The court in that case found the city’s interest was not in regulating what was said on tours but “making sure tour group participants get what they pay for” namely a safe tour “conducted by someone with a minimum quantum of professionalism.”
But the courts have thrown out a tour guide licensing ordinance in the District of Columbia. In Savannah, Georgia, after a lawsuit was filed, the city council repealed a requirement for a written exam.
Norton heard about 40 minutes of arguments but did not indicate when he might rule.
Charleston City Council is in the process of changing, but not eliminating, tour guide requirements. It has given preliminary approval to eliminating the oral exam and lowering the passing score on the written exam.
One of the plaintiffs, Kimberly Billups, said outside the courthouse that she is willing to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“History is my passion. I love teaching and talking about it. Opening a tour company and earning money for it is going to be my way of making living and supporting a family,” she said.
Another plaintiff, Michael Nolan, said some of the exam questions are obscure.
He said he likely would have passed “if I had known in which graveyard 12 different people were buried. To me that’s a trick question. There are lots of graveyards in Charleston and there are lot of dead people and how important is it to know where they can all be found?”