Decision expected in August for federal trial over Charleston tour guide licensing laws

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A federal trial has wrapped up over the City of Charleston's tour guide licensing laws.

A judge is expected to rule on the case in August.

The Institute for Justice claims the local law is unconstitutional because it requires tour guides to pass a written test before they can charge for tours.

Managing attorney for the Institute for Justice Texas office, Arif Panju works on free speech cases across the country and represents three plaintiffs who will be testifying.

"One of them is still wanting to be tour guide, but never passed the test," Panju said.  "Two became tour guides only because the city revised the test after the lawsuit was filed and got rid of the oral exam where you had to stand up in front of city officials and prove that you sounded okay and said the right things."

In order to become a licensed tour guide who can charge for tours people must pass a 200-question written exam. The questions come from information in a nearly 400-page manual that is provided by the City of Charleston.

"If you pass that test you can talk and tell the stories you want to tell, if you don't pass that test you cannot and that violates the First Amendment," Panju said.

The lawsuit argues that people should be allowed to decide who they want to listen to rather than city officials deciding who is permitted to get paid to speak.

"The city of Charleston has stepped in between people who want to talk and people who want to listen.and demanded that people who want to talk have mastered certain information that the city cares about," Panju said.

The co-owner of Oyster Point Historic Tours, Bill Harris, has been giving tours for about five years, he thinks the tests could be stronger if they do end up sticking around.

"Right now the test is a multiple choice, matching, true false examination doesn't do much to offer opportunities to demonstrate critical knowledge of the material...why did things happen vs. when," Harris said.

He also has another perspective.

"I wouldn't hate it if the licensing program didn't exist, I know that from people I've talked to it's not a terribly popular opinion," Harris said. "The argument that I've heard from folks is that it will be the Wild West out here you'll have people that can just show up and say whatever they want but the frank reality is  you can already do that, whether you have a passing score on the test doesn't change what you do or don't say."

This is the Institute for Justice's fifth lawsuit challenging tour guide licensing. It says three of its four lawsuits were successful.

A federal appellate court deemed that Washington, D.C.'s tour-guide license violated the Constitution while Savannah and Philadelphia d ropped their tour-guide licensing in response to legal challenges according to the Institute for Justice.

The Institute says the courts in New Orleans upheld their tour-guide licensing laws.

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