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Posted at 5:15 PM ET, 02/25/2011

Judge backs D.C. tour guide rules

By Spencer S. Hsu

A federal judge handed down a lesson about the U.S. Constitution to tour guides in the nation's capital Friday, ruling against two "Segway safari" operators who say the District's licensing rules violated their freedom of speech.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman of the District declined to suspend Washington's eight-month-old professional licensing requirement for sight-seeing guides, saying they were unlikely to prevail in further litigation.

Philadelphia in 2009 stopped enforcing its licensing plan after a similar legal challenge, citing a budget shortfall.

In the District, however, Friedman ruled in 27-page opinion, "The Court concludes that the plain reading of the municipal regulations shows that they are directed at plaintiffs' conduct -- not their speech."

"Clearly, the promotion of a major industry and the protection of the general welfare of society are significant government interests," Friedman wrote, warranting a history test and criminal check for people who guide or direct sightseers for pay.

Lawyers for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group in Arlington that also brought the Philadelphia case, argued that the history test by the D.C. Department of Community and Regulatory Affairs unconstitutionally limits licenses to tour guides who learn what the government wants them to know.

"What my clients do for a living is no different from what stand-up comedians do, what broadcast journalists do, and what college professors do. They share thoughts and opinions for money," said institute attorney Robert J. McNamara, arguing that none should be forced to obtain a government license.

Andrew J. Saindon, a lawyer for the District, called the rules "a legitimate use of the government's police powers" to protect residents from commercial frauds and cheats, authorized by a law dating to 1932.

Congress acted after Washington Post editors bemoaned the spectacle of the nation's "citizens, visitors to the Capital, 'fed up' on the great mass of misinformation" peddled by "self-styled" tour guides.

The case was brought by Tonia Edwards, 48, and Bill Main, 66, a Baltimore couple who operate Segs in the City tours near the National Mall, Capitol and White House

Tourism ranks behind only government as a local industry in D.C. -- 15 million visitors spend more than $5 billion a year in the region. The District licenses about 900 tour guides. But the D.C. Business Professional Licensing Administration has issued no notices of violations since Oct. 2005, said Harold B. Pettigrew Jr. He could not could recall ever citing a tour guide or company.

Similar disputes have popped up in tourist meccas across the country. Some 30,000 people earned livings as tour guides in 2009, according to Federal labor statistics.

New York City has required licenses and examinations for tour guides since 1937, and the National Park Service at national military parks since 1959, D.C. lawyers noted. Boston and San Francisco have no such rules.

By Spencer S. Hsu  | February 25, 2011; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  From the Courthouse, Spencer S. Hsu, The District  
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If you want to bill yourself as a pundit, fine. If you bill yourself as a tour guide, that's different.

If I'm paying for a tour guide and get a pundit, I may be feeling that I was misled and misspent my money.

I am glad there is at least a minimal level of vetting for D.C. tour guides, as I am aware that there is a gentleman billing himself as a D.C. tour guide who - in the past - rooked my history group of a lot of money to conduct a tour and did nothing but read the street signs along the trail we drove. When he wasn't sipping from a concealed flask, he was trying to hit up the young women on the bus to buy him a drink after the day's tour was over.

So anything that the local officials can do to make the unsuspecting tourist have some clear understanding of what they are paying for and getting what they expect is a very good thing.

Posted by: nadinem | February 25, 2011 9:25 PM | Report abuse

But what of all our nation's citizens who travel to DC for the explicit purpose of consuming misinformation? Sure, they could spend hours in the Capitol building listening to politicians spew non-facts at each other, but even the most ignorant of us bore of that after a while.

But seriously, do these requirements inhibit an "entertainment" business from leading comedic tours around DC, being for tourism what The Onion is for journalism? What tourist wouldn't laugh at the comedic perversion of our national history? When tour guides take visitors past Ford's Theater, can they no longer say, "so, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play"?

And even if you try your best to accurately present historical facts, mistakes happen. Look at this article for example; there is no "Department of Community and Regulatory Affairs", its the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. And if there is one DC government office that cares less about the affairs of our community, its the DCRA. I like it when WaPo is unintentionally ironic.

Posted by: smart-aleck | February 26, 2011 9:25 AM | Report abuse

"Lawyers for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group in Arlington that also brought the Philadelphia case, argued that the history test by the D.C. Department of Community and Regulatory Affairs unconstitutionally limits licenses to tour guides who learn what the government wants them to know."
And what about standardized testing in schools? Or is the same, teaching what the government wants to be known, not necessarily what should be known.

Posted by: gmclain | February 26, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

If I pay for a tour guide, I shouldn't instead get someone who is required to be a DC government propaganda flak ('Marion Barry did A, B, and C and so he is a competent leader', 'the federal government only gives DC $X million and that isn't enough', 'DC should be a state already')

If DC is writing the tests for these tour guides, our tour guides won't be learning American history. They will be forced to learn the talking points that the DC government wants the nation to hear.

That isn't free speech.

Posted by: reston75 | February 26, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

What idiots - either do it without a license and pay the fine, or pay the license fee. How much did your litigation cost?

Posted by: prickles1009 | February 26, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

LOL! @ Smart-aleck

Posted by: PepperDr | February 26, 2011 6:20 PM | Report abuse

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