Judge backs D.C. tour guide rules
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.
Spencer S. Hsu
| February 25, 2011; 5:15 PM ET
Categories: From the Courthouse, Spencer S. Hsu, The District
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