By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - An official crackdown on requirements for the hundreds of tour guides in New Orleans has prompted a group of guides to sue the city over what they say is a violation of their First Amendment rights.
To get or renew a two-year license, guides are supposed to take a basic history exam, pass a drug test and pass a fingerprint-based criminal background check that costs them $50.
For years, those requirements have been only sporadically enforced. Now, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is in his second year in office, has begun more aggressively enforcing them, in part to prevent the spreading of historical bloopers.
The crackdown seeks to ensure that "tour guides, who are important ambassadors for New Orleans, provide a consistent standard of information" to visitors, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni told Reuters in an email.
Four tour guides this week filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court that seeks to prohibit the city from enforcing tour licensing ordinances, saying guides have a right to earn a living by speaking on topics they choose without first getting a government permit.
"It's a violation of the First Amendment to require drug testing, history testing and background checks just to talk to people about the city of New Orleans," said Matthew Miller, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which filed the suit on behalf of the guides.
He said guides shouldn't face requirements not imposed on others who might write books or magazine articles about New Orleans.
SPEAKING WITHOUT A LICENSE
Candance Kagan, one of the plaintiffs, tried to renew her license but was rejected when she refused to provide her Social Security number, according to the lawsuit. Now the suit says she faces a fine of up to $300 or imprisonment if she speaks on certain subjects without a license.
In this tourist destination, the stakes are high. New Orleans' massive tourism business suffered a huge blow from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the industry has steadily recovered.
Last year, 8.3 million people visited the city, marking a post-Katrina high, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Some 550 people now hold licenses to conduct tours in the city, Berni said.
Not all of them have their history straight, said New Orleans tour business owner Robert Florence.
In this nearly 300-year-old city that's rife with historic landmarks, a favorite tour stop is a watering hole called the Napoleon House, a sprawling structure once occupied by the city's mayor, who in 1821 offered the home to Napoleon Bonaparte as a refuge during the fallen emperor's exile.
Bonaparte, in fact, never visited New Orleans, but you wouldn't know that by listening to some guides.
"You'll hear that Napoleon crossed the high seas and lived out the rest of his years in that house," Florence told Reuters. "There are some whoppers out there."
Still, Florence, who owns Historic New Orleans Tours LLC and employs nearly two dozen licensed guides, said he sympathizes with complaints about licenses.
"A lot of people who are conducting tours are retired doctors, lawyers and dignified senior citizens who don't appreciate having to pee in a cup," he said.
Tour guide groups and city officials have been meeting in recent months to examine permitting. That process continues, Berni said.
"Our goal is to protect the common good -- both the industry and visitors," Berni said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)