Federal Judge Strikes Down Charleston’s Licensing Requirement for Tour Guides

First Amendment Victory Vindicates Would-Be Guides’ Two-Year Battle

Charleston, S.C.—In a sweeping victory for free-speech rights, Judge David Norton of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina today issued an opinion holding that the City of Charleston’s licensing requirement for tour guides violates the First Amendment. The licensing law was challenged by three would-be tour guides—Kimberly Billups, Michael Warfield and Michael Nolan—who joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ) in January of 2016 to file a lawsuit alleging that the law amounted to an unconstitutional license to speak. Today’s opinion is the result of a four-day trial held in April of this year.

“The First Amendment means we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to rather than relying on the government to decide who gets to speak,” explained Arif Panju, Managing Attorney of IJ’s Texas Office. “Charleston’s tour-guide license turned that principle backwards, but today’s ruling puts citizens, rather than city officials, back in charge of what they say and what they listen to.”

“History speaks volumes,” said Kimberly Billups, one of the victorious plaintiffs. “Charleston is not above the law of the land.”

The court’s ruling centered on the fact that the tour-guide licensing law imposed serious burdens on would-be guides’ ability to speak, yet the city had never tried any less-restrictive regulations before imposing the licensing law. For instance, voluntary-certification programs exist in Philadelphia and Savannah.

“The [tour-guide] licensing law imposes real burdens on those hoping to be tour guides in Charleston,” the court’s opinion reads, “[b]ut the record demonstrates that the City never investigated or tried to use any less speech-restrictive alternatives … [And so the court] has no choice but to strike the licensing law down as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.”

Today’s court ruling is the latest in a nationwide string of victories by IJ against licensing laws that restrict peoples’ ability to speak for a living. The Institute has defeated tour-guide licensing laws in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Savannah, Ga., and won other victories on behalf of other people ranging from diet-advice bloggers to newspaper advice columnists.

“The First Amendment protects your right to speak for a living, whether you’re a journalist, a stand-up comedian or a tour guide,” concluded IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “Today’s opinion vindicates that principle, and we look forward to yet more victories for occupational speech in the months and years to come.”

JOIN THE FIGHT!   Sign up for newsletters:

JOIN THE FIGHT!