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Charleston Shows No Southern Hospitality for Tour Guides

Over the past eight years, IJ has filed four lawsuits challenging tour guide licensing schemes, winning three of those lawsuits in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Savannah, Georgia. But our fifth case, in Charleston, South Carolina, challenges probably the most outrageous tour guide licensing law IJ has seen.

There are thousands of stories to be told about Charleston. But picking your favorite and telling it to a tour group without the government’s permission can land you in jail. In Charleston, it is illegal to tell stories to paying tour groups without a license—and city officials have unparalleled power to decide what stories are allowed to be told.

The licensing process has two steps: First, would-be guides have two hours to complete a 200-question written exam. Then, if you score 80 percent or higher, you qualify for a second test: an oral exam graded on a pass-or-fail basis.

To pass the written exam, you must memorize the city’s “official” government-approved history.  The written exam’s 200 questions can cover anything in the 490-page City of Charleston Tour Guide Training Manual. Want to tell stories about the colonial era? You also have to bone up on Stephen Colbert (who, the city wants you to know, grew up in Charleston).   

And if you make it to the oral exam, you are judged on the words that you speak. The government’s testing officials randomly call on applicants, select a page from the training manual, and require that person to “act as a guide” and describe whatever the testing officials choose.

Unsurprisingly, this system keeps a lot of people out of the tour guide business. Among them are IJ clients Mike Warfield and Michael Nolan.

Mike and Michael were well on their way to earning a living as tour guides last year before learning they needed a license. Mike had  received a job offer to give ghost and pub tours. And Michael, after spending a career as an editor in book publishing, began his retirement in Charleston and wanted to put his storytelling skills to work.

Both walked into the city’s licensing exam last November prepared, took a test with questions resembling nothing like what they had studied and walked out knowing they had failed.

Any law that makes you pass a history exam and an oral exam before you can tell stories about Charleston flunks every test under the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to talk to a willing audience about whatever topic they choose without first getting the government’s permission—that is true for tour guides just as it is for journalists and comedians.

That is why, on Jan. 28, IJ filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Charleston to strike down the city’s tour guide licensing scheme. Tour guides are storytellers and the government cannot be in the business of deciding what stories are important or who is allowed to tell them. Tour guides should be allowed to speak to anybody who wants to listen to them, not be forced to take a government-mandated test.

Arif Panju is an IJ attorney.


Could You Pass the Test?

Here is a small selection of the facts in the 490-page City of Charleston Tour Guide Training Manual:

  • The names of 40 separate cities/areas/neighborhoods in the metro area.
  • The number of hotel rooms in the area.
  • The enrollment figures at 10 separate universities.
  • The names and brief histories of 55 notable people with ties to Charleston, ranging from John C. Calhoun and William Henry Drayton to Stephen Colbert and Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish.
  • The names and years of 26 movies and TV shows affiliated with Charleston.
  • The stories of 109 separate historical events, some of which go into a significant degree of detail.
  • Six full pages of archaeology and prehistory of Charleston, including “the first settlers [who] were Old World Stone Age hunter-gatherers who migrated here from arctic zones.”

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