Just one week before a federal judge hears arguments regarding the constitutionality of Charleston’s tour guide licensing, City Council is set to discuss an ordinance that would do away with the city’s oral examination requirements.
Under Charleston’s current laws, those applying to be a tour guide must pay a $50 registration fee and pass both a 200-question written exam and an oral test. In late January, three plaintiffs represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm based in Virginia, filed complaints alleging that the licensing of tour guides violates their First Amendment rights.
At that time, attorney Robert McNamara argued that Charleston’s ordinance restricts free speech by policing exactly what tour guides say to customers, adding, “Charleston is the only city where there’s been tour guide lawsuits that not only requires tour guides to pass a written exam, but also requires them to pass an oral exam. You have to go in and talk about the city, and the city official decides whether or not you’re going to be allowed to talk to tour groups. ... You can apply for a temporary tour guide license, but the only way to get a temporary license is to give the city an actual script of what you plan to say, so a government official can again vet it for accuracy.”
The new ordinance up for first reading Tuesday would eliminate the oral exam, as well as the temporary tour guide designation. The new changes would also increase the number of annual examinations offered for potential tour guides, change the passing grade on the written exam from 80 percent to 70 percent, and require guides to complete four continuing education programs in three years to extend their license without retaking the exam.
According to McNamara, changes such as these are similar to steps taken by officials in Savannah after several tour guides represented by the Institute of Justice filed suit against the city. Savannah City Council ultimately voted to repeal the city’s tour guide licensing law last October.
McNamara called the proposed changes to Charleston’s tour guide requirements “a slow-motion surrender” and an attempt by the city to tidy up before a judge sees the case.
“This is a clear concession that the tour guide laws as they stand look bad for them,” McNamara added. “It is much less efficient to repeal these things piecemeal.”
Attorneys for the city argue that Charleston’s tour guide laws are a matter of protecting customers and only apply to guides wishing to charge for their services. Similar court cases have been carried out in other historic cities across the country. Judges in New Orleans agree with Charleston officials when it comes to regulating tour guides, deciding in favor of the city’s requirements, which include an exam and background check. In Washington, D.C., federal judges ruled against the city’s tour guide licensing laws in 2014.
Both sides involved in Charleston’s licensing dispute will appear before U.S. District Judge David Norton on April 19.