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.