November 18, 2015

Good news for free speech in Savannah. Regular readers of Liberty & Law may recall that IJ filed suit almost one year ago on behalf of Savannah tour guides, including “Savannah Dan” and “Savannah Belle,” challenging the requirement that guides obtain a government license before telling their stories. In response to our lawsuit, Savannah has repealed the law.

One city council member explained his change of heart at a recent council meeting, saying: “When you come up against the U.S. Constitution, you lose.”

Savannah’s newfound respect for the First Amendment demonstrates the power of IJ’s work to educate even the most recalcitrant government officials.

Before IJ came to town, Savannah officials were openly contemptuous of tour guides’ First Amendment rights. For years, Savannah had subjected guides to licensing. To get a license, guides had to pass a multiple-choice history test, even if they had no interest in talking about history—for instance, because they wanted to tell ghost stories.

Tour guides even had to undergo a physical examination by a doctor, to prove that they were “qualified” to talk.

After a federal court in Washington, D.C., struck down the District’s tour guide licensing law in response to another IJ suit, government officials in Savannah publicly declared that they had no intention of following that decision.

What a difference a year makes.

As IJ’s lawsuit moved forward, Savannah’s defense steadily fell to pieces. As its primary justification for licensing, Savannah argued that licensing was necessary to maintain the city’s “brand” by preventing unsuitable individuals from talking to tourists. By the time the city’s lawyers realized that such blatant censorship is not in fact a legitimate government interest under the First Amendment, it was too late to retract those admissions.

Meanwhile, IJ attorneys obtained a sworn declaration from the author of Savannah’s tour guide licensing exam—a local university professor—explaining that she did not believe a multiple-choice test was an effective way to promote quality tours. The professor testified that she herself could not pass Savannah’s test, which focuses on obscure details of Savannah history, even though she had written the questions.

But the real kicker came when Savannah officials were forced to admit that they were unaware of any problems that had arisen in cities that do not license tour guides. If so many other cities are able to dispense with tour guide licensing, what justification could there possibly be for imposing that burden on Savannah’s guides?

Of course, it would have been better if officials in Savannah had thought about these kinds of questions before IJ filed its lawsuit.

Still, Savannah officials are certainly thinking about the Constitution now. And we expect a favorable ruling from the court that our clients’ rights were violated by the prior law. Perhaps other cities across the country will get the same message: Repeal your unconstitutional laws today or deal with IJ tomorrow.

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

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