Savannah, Ga.—Does the First Amendment allow cities to make it illegal to give tours to paying groups without first passing a special test and obtaining a license from the city? A federal court in Savannah today joined other federal judges in holding that it does not.
Today’s ruling comes in Freenor v. Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Savannah, a case filed in 2014 by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of a group of Savannah tour guides who argued that the city’s licensing law violated their basic right to talk for a living. For years, Savannah had made it illegal to tell stories to tour groups without first obtaining a special license from the government. Tour guides who wanted this storytelling license had to pass a hundred-question multiple choice exam on Savannah history—even if they had no interest in discussing history on their tours. For instance, some tour guides focus on art and architecture or tell ghost stories. In 2015, in an effort to end the guides’ lawsuit, the city repealed the licensing requirement, but the plaintiffs pressed forward in search of a constitutional ruling. Today, they got it.
“Today’s ruling vindicates a simple principle,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “In this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to. We do not rely on government to decide who will get to speak.”
Savannah officials attempted to defend the licensing law as necessary for consumer protection, but the court found that there was no evidence that the law actually achieved its ends: “Ultimately, a handful of anecdotes is not sufficient to sustain the city’s burden to demonstrate that the tour guide licensing scheme actually serves its interests,” wrote United States District Court Judge William T. Moore.
The ruling in Savannah is just the latest in a national wave sweeping away tour-guide licensing requirements. Federal courts in Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina, have also struck down guide licenses in those cities in response to IJ litigation, and late last year Williamsburg, Virginia, repealed a similar licensing requirement to avoid a lawsuit. Only one similar licensing law—in New Orleans, Louisiana—has ever been upheld by a federal court.
“For decades, IJ has defended the basic principle that the First Amendment protects your right to speak for a living,” concluded IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “That is just as true for journalists as it is for tour guides or doctors or health coaches. Today’s victory is an important step in securing these rights for all Americans, and we look forward to many more victories to come.”