Victory for Savannah Tour Guides

Facing Looming Court Decision, City Repeals Law Challenged Under First Amendment

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 15, 2015

CONTACT: Chris Dobrogosz (703) 682-9320

Arlington, Va.— Almost one year ago, the Institute for Justice (IJ) filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Savannah tour guides challenging the city’s tour guide licensing law under the First Amendment. This afternoon, with the case fully briefed and awaiting the judge’s decision, Savannah’s City Council voted to repeal the challenged law.

“Free speech is free speech, and I never believed you could require a license to tell a story,” said Jean Soderlind, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the law. “I’m glad the city finally got the message, but I don’t understand why they would go this far with the lawsuit and then not wait for the judge to issue his decision.”

For years, Savannah has made it illegal to tell stories to tour groups without first obtaining a special license from the government. Tour guides who wanted this storytelling license had to pass a hundred-question multiple choice exam on Savannah history—even if they had no interest in discussing history on their tours.

In June 2014, a federal court in Washington, D.C. struck down that city’s similar tour guide licensing law under the First Amendment. After Savannah officials publicly announced that they would not follow the D.C. court’s decision, a group of tour guides filed a First Amendment case in November 2014 challenging Savannah’s licensing law.

The proposal to repeal the licensing law was first discussed at an October 1, 2015 meeting of the City Council. At that meeting, Councilman Van Johnson stated that he was “disappointed” by the proposal to repeal the licensing law but that “I also realize that when you come up against the U.S. Constitution, you lose.”

At today’s meeting, the City Council voted to adopt the proposed amendments.

“Today, the City of Savannah finally recognized the obvious and repealed a law that never should have been enacted in the first place,” said IJ Attorney Robert Everett Johnson. “Requiring a license to work as a tour guide is just like requiring a license to work as a journalist or a stand-up comedian. In other words, flatly unconstitutional.”

After the suit was filed, city officials publicly defended the licensing law. Bridget Lidy, the city’s chief tourism regulator, asserted that “there needs to be some kind of standard in place that protects the integrity of our community.”

However, as the case proceeded, the evidence against the law mounted. Among other things, the author of the city’s licensing exam submitted a sworn affidavit testifying that she herself could not answer many of the questions—which focus on minute details of Savannah history—even though she had written them herself.

The city’s lawyers claimed that licensing was necessary to guard against various hypothetical dangers, but were unable to produce evidence to support those claims. For instance, while the city’s lawyers argued that licensing was needed to prevent child molesters leading tours of Girl Scouts, the city was unable to prove that its mandatory history test actually averted that danger.

“We’ve been trying for eight years to get the city to reform its licensing law,” said Michelle Freenor, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “It’s sad it took us suing for the city to change an unconstitutional law.”

Even after today’s vote, licensing laws for tour guides remain on the books in several nearby cities. Both Charleston, South Carolina and St. Augustine, Florida require a license to work as a tour guide.

“Savannah’s decision to give up after a year of litigation should put other cities with licensing requirements for tour guides on notice,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “Cities can save themselves a lot of aggravation if they repeal unconstitutional laws before they get sued rather than afterwards.”

For more information on the case, visit: https://www.ij.org/savannah-tour-guides-free-speech

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