No decision made in federal tour guide license lawsuit, case could go to trial

No decision made in federal tour guide license lawsuit, case could go to trial
Horse carriage tour guides are required to have a license to work (Source: Live 5)
Horse carriage tour guides are required to have a license to work (Source: Live 5)

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - In the next few weeks a federal judge will decide whether the tour guide licensing laws in Charleston will change, or if the lawsuit against the city will go to trial.

Thursday morning U.S. District Judge Richard Norton deferred a decision until more facts were presented by attorneys for the city and those representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In January 2016, an organization called The Institute for Justice and three people who claim they would be tour guides if it wasn't for the city's licensing rule, filed the First Amendment lawsuit in an effort to protect the rights of people who "simply want to talk for a living."

As it stands now, anyone who wishes to become a tour guide in the City of Charleston must pass a 200-question written exam before they can receive their license and give tours. In April 2016, the city revised its ordinance to abolish an oral exam which was previously mandated.

"You don't want a lawyer who hasn't been to law school, you don't want a school teacher who hasn't been to college," said licensed tour guide Tim Dillinger. "You don't want somebody who doesn't know what they're talking about representing the city."

Dillinger is a licensed tour guide of 14 years. He like the attorneys representing the City of Charleston believe tour guides play a crucial role in representing the city.

"We've become the number one tourism destination in the world for nine years in a row because of the integrity of the people who are doing this job," Dillinger said.

"The City of Charleston tells people they have to remain silent unless they pass a test and prove to the government that they know what the government wants them to know, and talk about," said Arif Panju, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. "That's unconstitutional under the First Amendment."

Panju said freedom of speech is violated based on these current laws, because the city is telling tour guides what they can and can't say.

"Absolutely not," Dillinger responded to the claim. "In any way shape or form, nobody tells us what to say."

"They're so worried about content, they keep bringing up the fact they want tour guides to be licensed and knowledge, and in the same sentence they say there's nothing they can do about taking someone's license away no matter what they say," said Mike Warfield, a plaintiff in the case.

"That person should be held accountable but there is no mechanism in place to hold that person accountable," said licensed tour guide Alfred Ray.

When asked if Ray believes there should be something in place to hold people accountable, he responded, "No I don't think so, I don't. I think the freedom of speech does guarantee people the right to say what they want to say."

Attorneys representing the city argued license laws prevent scams from happening. For example, a random person offering to give tours to people and then running away with their money.

"You could be scammed by a licensed tourist," said Kim Billups, another plaintiff and owner of Charleston Belle Tours. "I've heard thousands of stories of it happening."

Dillinger says he and other tour guides hold each other accountable if false information is relayed to the tourists.

"Reputation and the Charleston brand is crucially important," said Stephen Herchak, President of the Charleston Tour Association. "If reviews start going around saying xyz tour guide gave us a lousy tour, it's not that people are going to remember that person's name… the marketplace is going to put Charleston out of business."

Anyone caught giving a tour without a license could face fines up to $500 or even 30 days in jail.

Messages to the City of Charleston for a statement following Thursday's hearing weren't immediately returned.

This is the Institute for Justice's fifth lawsuit challenging tour guide licensing. IJ recently won its challenge in Savannah after the city repealed its law in October 2015, and has also represented tour guides in Philadelphia and in Washington D.C. IJ also challenged New Orleans' licensing laws which were upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014.

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