Censorship in the Garden of Good and Evil

March 4, 2015

When Michelle Freenor heard about IJ’s victory overturning Washington, D.C.’s tour guide licensing scheme, she picked up the phone and called IJ’s offices. Months later, she is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit—and the government has already started backing down.

Michelle is a tour guide in Savannah, Ga., where she is required to get a license from the government before she can talk to paying customers. To get a license, tour guides must overcome a series of bureaucratic hurdles, including passing a 100-question multiple-choice test about the city’s history and, until IJ filed suit, undergoing a medical exam by a doctor. Guides are required to pass the city’s history test even if they have no interest in talking about Savannah’s history because, for example, they plan to give ghost tours or tours about the various movies filmed in the city.

Liberty & Law readers will remember that IJ challenged a similar law in Washington, D.C., and in June 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed that D.C.’s law violates the First Amendment. Tour guides tell stories for a living, and under the First Amendment you do not need the government’s permission to tell a story.

When Michelle read a newspaper article about the D.C. decision, an epiphany struck: Savannah was clearly violating her own First Amendment rights, as well as the rights of every other tour guide in the city. Michelle had been fighting for years with Savannah’s tourism office, but she had never before framed her struggle in constitutional terms.

It did not take long for Michelle to translate her epiphany into action. She got on the phone and suggested that IJ look into the situation in Savannah. And then she helped put together a coalition of tour guides interested in fighting the city. By November, Michelle was standing in front of City Hall with two IJ attorneys and three other tour guides, including well-known city tour guide “Savannah Dan” Leger, announcing a federal lawsuit challenging Savannah’s licensing regime.

Already, the lawsuit is gaining national attention and making an impact. In December, The New York Times published a big feature about the lawsuit. And Savannah’s city council met on December 23—just in time for Christmas—to amend its laws to eliminate the medical exam requirement. The city decided this aspect of its laws was impossible to defend.

The repeal of the doctor exam requirement is a significant victory for Michelle, who suffers from several autoimmune disorders and sometimes has to walk with a cane. Michelle no longer has to worry that the city will decline to renew her license because it deems her too unhealthy to talk.

But Michelle is not going to stop until the city’s entire licensing requirement is declared unconstitutional. Michelle believes the appellate court in D.C. got it exactly right: In this country, the only things you should need to work as a tour guide are stories to tell and an audience willing to listen. The government cannot be allowed to decide who is—or is not—allowed to talk.

With our victory in D.C. pointing the way, tour guides in Savannah are making that principle a reality.

Robert Everett Johnson is an IJ attorney and the Institute’s Elfie Gallun Fellow in Freedom and the Constitution.

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