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.”

  • The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of four current and would-be Savannah tour guides
  • Licensure requires fees, tests, background checks and a physical exam
  • Failure to acquire a license can result in fines and jail time
  • Institute for Justice filed similar lawsuits in Washington D.C., New Orleans and Philadelphia

Savannah, Ga.—Tour guides are storytellers, and in America, you shouldn’t need a license to tell a story. But the city of Savannah disagrees, imposing a host of regulatory burdens on people who want to talk to paying tour groups.

That’s why, today, a coalition of current and would-be Savannah tour guides has joined forces with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit seeking to vindicate an important First Amendment principle: The government cannot require a license to tell a story.

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 leads a tour without a license risks fines, jail time or even forced participation in a municipal “work gang.”

“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 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are a coalition of four area residents. Dan Leger, who gives tours as “Savannah Dan,” is a former soldier and police officer who firmly believes he doesn’t need the government’s permission to tell a story. Michelle Freenor, who operates Savannah Belle Walking Tours, is tired of being subjected to burdensome regulation just because she wants to exercise her First Amendment rights. Michelle’s husband Steven Freenor is a college and high school teacher who cannot give tours because he is not licensed. And Jean Soderlind runs a tour company, Ghost Talk, Ghost Walk; she can actually manage the content of her company’s tours, but she cannot fill in for guides because she does not have a license.

“In this country, anyone should be free to talk, just as anyone should be free not to listen,” said Leger. “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.”

In a similar lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C. recently 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.

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.

“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.”

For more information on this lawsuit, visit 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.