Charleston tour guide tests trigger free-speech lawsuit

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Posted: Jan 28, 2016 2:01 PM
Charleston tour guide tests trigger free-speech lawsuit

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — In a dispute that's being played out in several historic cities, some would-be Charleston tour guides say their right to free speech is being violated by an ordinance requiring guides to pass written and oral exams.

The First Amendment lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court on behalf of three plaintiffs who want to give tours in a city that draws upward to 5 million visitors a year.

The licensing ordinance requires guides to pass a 200-question written exam and then an oral exam. The lawsuit seeks to have it declared unconstitutional.

City spokesman Jack O'Toole said Charleston officials have not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment. But he said city officials believe the existing licensing rules serve the public interest.

The courts have split on whether requiring tour guides to have licenses violates free speech. A federal appeals court upheld a New Orleans ordinance while another appeals panel overturned one in the District of Columbia.

Following a 2014 lawsuit challenging a similar ordinance in Savannah, Georgia, the city council voted last October to repeal its ordinance requiring a written exam.

The Charleston exam questions can deal with everything from famous people buried in local cemeteries to architecture and the city's almost 350-year history. They are taken from a 490-page study guide that costs $45.

The guide says the city's goal is to "provide accurate, factual and updated information to its visitors and residents."

"You shouldn't have to pass a test, let alone two, to tell a story," Arif Panju, an attorney for the Institute for Justice which is representing the plaintiffs, said during a news conference Thursday outside the courthouse.

"Any law that requires people to pass a 200-question written exam and an oral exam to tell stories as a tour guide flunks every test under the First Amendment," he added.

One of the plaintiffs, Kimberly Billups, wants to open her own tour company.

"This city has a thousand stories to tell. I'd love to teach these stories and tell these stories," said. She can't without a license and said she studied for the exam for five or six hours a day for two months but didn't pass.

Michael Warfield said he took the exam twice and didn't pass. The complaint says there were no questions about ghost stories of Charleston on the exam and that's what he wants to discuss on tours.

Panju said the plaintiffs will seek a preliminary injunction to block the ordinance and allow his clients to work while the case makes its way through the courts.

The third plaintiff, Michael Nolan, said the government should not be licensing people in an attempt to ensure accuracy.

"Would you like your newspaper or television station or radio station to have to get a license from the city to make sure what you say is true?" he asked reporters. "The market will figure it out."