There are thousands of stories to be told about Charleston, South Carolina. But the city makes it illegal to tell stories to tour groups without getting a government-mandated license, a crime punishable by fines of up to $500 or even 30 days in jail. But a new First Amendment lawsuit from the Institute for Justice and three would-be Charleston tour guides seeks to protect the right of people who simply want to talk for a living.
To obtain a license in Charleston, would-be guides must pass two different exams: a two-hour, 200-question written exam and an oral exam where city officials grade applicants on their verbal descriptions and storytelling about randomly selected sites around Charleston. Applicants are allowed to take the oral exam only if they receive an 80 percent or higher on the written exam.
“Any law that makes you pass a 200-question history exam and an oral exam before you can tell stories about Charleston flunks every test under the First Amendment,” said Arif Panju, an IJ attorney representing the three tour guides in the lawsuit.
Because Charleston’s tour-guide licensing exam is only administered four times a year, applicants are given temporary licenses if sponsored by existing tour companies. But the city makes those temporary licenses hard to get, too: You must pass a separate written exam and provide the city with the script of what you plan to say so it can be “approved for accuracy” by city officials.
“The First Amendment protects the right to talk for a living, whether you are a stand-up comedian, a journalist or a tour guide,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara, who is co-counsel on the case. “The government cannot be in the business of deciding what stories are important or who is allowed to tell them. The best defense against a bad tour guide is the same as the best defense against a bad comedian: Don’t listen to them.”
“The only reason my business, Charleston Belle Tours, has not opened its doors is that I do not have the city’s permission to talk,” explained Kimberly Billups, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “But we should rely on people to decide for themselves whether they want to listen to me. We should not let the government decide whether I’m going to be allowed to speak.”
This is the Institute for Justice’s fifth lawsuit challenging tour guide licensing. Recently, IJ won its challenge in Savannah after the city repealed its law in October 2015, and has successfully represented tour guides in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. IJ also challenged New Orleans’ licensing scheme, which was upheld by the 5th U.S Circuit of Appeals in 2014.