Both sides dealt setback in tour guide free-speech lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: Jul 11, 2016 12:40 PM

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge has dealt both sides a setback in a free-speech challenge to a tour-guide licensing ordinance in historic Charleston.

U.S. District Judge David Norton issued an order allowing the city to still enforce the ordinance but also denying a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. The judge has set the trial for January.

Three would-be guides, in a lawsuit similar to free-speech cases in other historic cities, say they shouldn't have to pass a test and get a license to earn a living as Charleston tour guides.

The city contends that the Charleston ordinance requiring guides to pass a 200-question written test to receive a license is a lawful business regulation.

Norton held a hearing in April on motions by the plaintiffs to block the city from enforcing the ordinance and by the city asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

The city contends that the ordinance is not about restricting free speech but a legal means to regulate businesses in the tourism industry that attracts millions to Charleston each year.

A city attorney said at the April hearing that it's designed to insure that those who pay for tours get what they pay for. The plaintiffs say requiring a license violates their First Amendment rights of free speech.

Norton, in refusing to block enforcement of the ordinance, wrote in a 45-page order issued earlier this month that the law "does not impose an especially sizeable burden on speech."

At the same time, he wrote "it is clear the plaintiffs have stated a plausible claim" adding that "the complaint sufficiently alleges that the city has no evidence that unlicensed tour guides have ever presented problems in Charleston or any other city."

A federal appeals court has upheld a similar licensing ordinance in New Orleans finding the city interest was not in regulating speech "but making sure tour group participants get what they pay for" namely a safe tour "conducted by someone with a minimum quantum of professionalism."

But the courts tossed out a licensing ordinance in the District of Columbia. Savannah, Georgia, repealed its requirement for a written exam after a similar lawsuit was filed.