Tour Guides In Savannah Sue To End City’s Licensing Requirement

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 18, 2014

Tour Guides In Savannah Sue To End City’s Licensing Requirement
Guides say licensure violates their rights: “We shouldn’t need a license to tell a story.”

  • Licensure in Savannah requires fees, tests, background checks and a physical exam
  • IJ filed similar lawsuits in Washington D.C., New Orleans and Philadelphia
  • Today, IJ filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court in its New Orleans case
  • Tour guide licensing is part of national growth in occupational licensing laws

Arlington, Va.—Tour guides are storytellers, and in America, you shouldn’t need a license to tell a story. But a small group of cities across the country have literally made it a crime to tell stories to paying tour groups without first getting the government’s permission.

That’s why, today, the Institute for Justice redoubled its national campaign to vindicate the First Amendment principle that the government cannot decide who is allowed to tell a story. IJ has joined with a coalition of four current and would-be Savannah tour guides to challenge that city’s tour guide licensing scheme. In addition, IJ filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to review a challenge to a similar licensing requirement in New Orleans.

“There is no ‘tour guide’ exception to the First Amendment,” said IJ attorney Robert Everett Johnson. “It would be unimaginable for the government to impose similar burdens on other people who talk or write for a living—like journalists, poets or stand-up comedians. Tour guides are no different from any other storytellers and are entitled to the same constitutional protection.”


The licensing of tour guides is part of a national trend of state and local governments using occupational licensing laws to create artificial barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. In the 1950s, only one in 20 workers needed the government’s permission to pursue their chosen occupation. Today, that figure stands at almost one in three.

For years, the city of Savannah has required tour guides to run a bureaucratic gauntlet of requirements to obtain a license before they can lead a tour. Guides are required to take a multiple-choice test on the city’s history, undergo a criminal background check and produce a certificate from a doctor verifying that they are sufficiently healthy to talk. In addition, Savannah makes the city’s tour guides pay a special speech tax based on the size of their audience.

Anyone who fails to abide by these rules risks fines, jail time or even forced participation in a municipal “work gang.”

This is the fourth challenge to a tour guide license filed by the Institute for Justice, which successfully prevented the city of Philadelphia from instituting a guide license in 2008. More recently, in a similar lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C. struck down that city’s licensing requirement for tour guides as a violation of the First Amendment. But around the same time, a federal appellate court in New Orleans reached the opposite result and rejected IJ’s challenge to that city’s law. Today, IJ filed a petition for certiorari, asking the United States Supreme Court to review the New Orleans decision. The differing appellate court decisions make this issue ripe for review by the Supreme Court.

“Both the lawsuit in Savannah and the Supreme Court petition are about more than ghost tours,” concluded IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “They are about the basic principle that, in this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to rather than relying on the government to decide who is going to get to speak. Government officials in Savannah, New Orleans and elsewhere are getting that principle exactly backwards, and we will continue fighting until they get it—and the First Amendment—right.”

“In this country, anyone should be free to talk, just as anyone should be free not to listen,” said Dan Leger, who gives tours as “Savannah Dan” and is a plaintiff in the Savannah challenge. “The best defense against a bad tour guide is the same as the best defense against a bad stand-up comedian—don’t listen to them.”

For more information on IJ’s work defending free speech, visit Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.