A Belated Free Speech Victory in Georgia

Better late than never.

A U.S. District Judge has ruled that a previous Savannah ordinance requiring tour guides to pass a test and be licensed was unconstitutional.

The ruling came down Monday from Judge William T. Moore Jr. despite the fact that the ordinance was reversed by the council in 2015 after the lawsuit was filed. The city enacted the ordinance, like all good ordinances, back in the 1970s to “protect the tourism industry,” while ensuring what tour guides said was accurate, and also tacked on a $1 per person tax that tour guides must pay the city to help maintain monuments. All tour guides must be licensed by the city, too.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that “tour guides in Savannah sued City Hall over the 1978 licensing ordinance,” arguing that “city officials were violating their First Amendment rights by deciding who was qualified to tell visitors about Savannah’s history and architecture.” Additionally, they said there were attempts to control speech by testing them on what the government believed they should share with visitors. The guides also argue the per person tax is unfair because other tourism-related professionals are not required to pay.

Judge Moore ultimately agreed with the free speech argument in Freenor v. Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Savannah, and said the city had offered no reasonable justifications for its tour guide licensing program. “Ultimately, a handful of anecdotes is not sufficient to sustain the city’s burden to demonstrate that the tour guide licensing scheme actually serves its interests,” Moore wrote. He is still weighing the tax aspect over jurisdiction concerns.  

The interesting part is that judges haven’t been wholly consistent on the issue, even though the trend has tilted in favor of tour guides in recent years. A similar ordinance in New Orleans was upheld by a judge, but constitutional challenges to a Charleston ordinance landed a ruling in favor of tour guides last fall, and Philadelphia and Washington D.C. tour guide ordinances have been struck down as well. No one has challenged New York’s ordinance.

In Charleston, tour guides were required to pass a test based on a nearly 500-page manual to get a license. The U.S. District judge in that case, Judge David Norton, said that ordinance “imposes real burdens on those hoping to be tour guides in Charleston,” and that the court “has no choice but to strike the licensing law down as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.”

The courts are often slow and this ruling is obviously moot for the City of Savannah, but it’s an important — and welcomed — precedent nevertheless.

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Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

You call this a victory for “Free Speech”? I call it a travesty of so called justice. The constitution and the 1st Amendment in no way concern the regulation of a City, County, or State from requiring individuals that represents that entity f prove they are competent to present what that entity determines is the history of that entity. Licensing is a way of controlling the number of those competent individuals in the market for representative positions. This allows an entity to control the competition and thereby the security and value of those jobs.. As a tourist who pays for… Read more »

Grindelwald
Grindelwald

Would you pay to have some half-wit spout Nazi or Islamic or Christian rhetoric while you are driven or walked around a City, Park, or County? That’s where the free market comes in. Tour companies are increasingly reliant on word-of-mouth advertising, the bulk of which comes via sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google, etc. If someone is opening their tour with “let me tell ya how the Jews are ruining Savannah,” odds are that’s going to make its way into a negative TripAdvisor review. I get what Savannah was trying to do, but there are less restrictive means to accomplish it.… Read more »

drjay
drjay

some of the most popular tours in the city are ghost tours, this is just opening the tour guides need to just start making shit up on these ghost tours…color me alarmed…

Grindelwald
Grindelwald

Considering ghosts aren’t real, I would contend they’re already making it up.

Ellynn
Ellynn

Heard a few years ago while eating my lunch in Madison Square from a walking tour guide.

“Now Savannah allowed Sherman into the city over Christmas to heal after suffering from some burns, as any good Christians would…”