Licensed to Speak?

February 1, 2012

By Matt Miller

I was not required to get a license from the government to write this story.  Indeed, if the government attempted to require such a license, I would have swift redress under the First Amendment.  But if I were to walk around New Orleans and talk about the Crescent City to tourists, the city would require me to first obtain a government-issued license.  It may seem absurd, but the city of New Orleans’ 500 tour guides must each possess a city-issued license in order to talk about their town.  That is why—after filing similar cases in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.—IJ is back in court to defend the First Amendment rights of tour guides.

The license requirement applies to every kind of tour, including ghost tours and the ever-popular vampire tours of the French Quarter.  Before a guide can tell you about the history of Jackson Square or point out where Tom Cruise filmed Interview With a Vampire, that guide must pass a written examination approved by the city, urinate in a cup for a drug test and submit her fingerprints to the FBI for a background check.

Anyone caught guiding tours without a license can spend up to five months in jail and be fined up to $300 per day.

The local tour-guide community is rightfully upset about the licensing requirement.  They tell stories of city inspectors approaching tour-guide groups and ordering them to disband if they do not possess a city-issued license.  The tour guides view themselves no differently than writers or teachers:  They educate and entertain for a living.  They understand that the First Amendment protects their right to speak, just like it protects my right to write this story and your right to read it.

That is why four New Orleans tour guides have joined with the Institute for Justice to sue the city over its tour guide licensing law.  The city cannot make you pass a history exam or be fingerprinted for the FBI in order to speak.  If a tour guide embellishes a story or gets a date wrong, that’s just too bad.  It is no different than an iPod audio tour of the Garden District making the same mistake yet iPod tours do not require licenses.  In both cases, the government has absolutely no interest in playing truth police; such decisions are best left to tour guides and their customers.

If our clients are successful, their lawsuit will eliminate a ridiculous and wasteful law that harasses speakers based on the content of their speech and uses city resources that are better spent protecting people from actual danger.

Far from being part of the problem, tour guides—and other Big Easy entrepreneurs—are a big part of the solution for New Orleans as it continues to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and the national economic crisis.

Rather than weighing them down with senseless restrictions on their speech, the city should be allowing tour guides to continue showing visitors around the best of what New Orleans has to offer.\

Matt Miller is executive director of the IJ Texas Chapter.

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