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Federal Court Strikes Down Charleston’s Tour-Guide License

Appeals court ruling affirms that Charleston violated would-be guides’ First Amendment rights

Arlington, Va. —This morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled unanimously that Charleston, S.C., violated the First Amendment by making it illegal for anyone to give paid tours of the city without obtaining a special license. The ordinance, which was first struck down by a South Carolina trial court in 2018 in response to a lawsuit brought by the Institute for Justice (IJ), had required guides to prove they mastered a 500-page manual recounting the facts city leaders deemed most important. Today’s ruling affirms that the 2018 ruling was correct and that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.

“In this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to rather than relying on the government to decide who gets to speak,” said IJ Senior Attorney Arif Panju. “Charleston’s law was unconstitutional because it got that important principle exactly backwards.”

IJ challenged the tour-guide ordinance in 2016 on behalf of three would-be Charleston tour guides who wanted to lead specialty tours that would not require them to memorize every part of the city’s expansive guide. In 2018, the federal district court for the District of South Carolina agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that Charleston should have tried less-restrictive regulations before leaping to impose burdens on speech.

Today’s ruling agrees: “The Ordinance undoubtedly burdens protected speech,” wrote Judge Robert B. King in the court’s opinion, “as it prohibits unlicensed tour guides from leading paid tours — in other words, speaking to visitors — on certain public sidewalks and streets.” Before the government can burden speech, the ruling continues, it is “obliged to demonstrate that it actually tried or considered less-speech-restrictive alternatives and that such alternatives were inadequate to serve the government’s interest.” Because Charleston could demonstrate no such thing, its ordinance was unconstitutional.

Courts across the country have struck down tour-guide licensing laws in response to IJ lawsuits, including in Washington, D.C., and Savannah, Georgia. Other jurisdictions, like Williamsburg, Va., have repealed their licensing ordinances in order to avoid litigation.

“My love for history has helped others to go down in history and what an amazing feeling that is,” said Kimberly Billups, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “I tell my tour groups full of 8th graders about how important our First Amendment is and how they can keep it safe for the future.”

“Today’s ruling affirms that the First Amendment protects your right to speak for a living, whether you are a journalist, a stand-up comedian or a tour guide,” concluded IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “Government officials consistently assume that they can trample your right to speak just because someone wants to pay to hear you. That is wrong, and the Institute for Justice will continue to prove that it is wrong as often as we need to.”

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