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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 09/17/2010

D.C.'s problem with 'describing without a license'

By editors

By Robert McNamara

The streets of Washington are being stalked by criminals. In broad daylight, these dangerous scoundrels roam the city streets, flouting the laws that keep us safe. Their heinous crime? They describe things.

The District makes it illegal for anyone to work as a “sightseeing guide” without first passing a test and obtaining a special government license.

New regulations promulgated in July make clear what that means: It is illegal to “describe ... any place or point of interest in the District to any person” on a tour without a license. Scofflaws who engage in unauthorized description can be thrown in jail for up to three months.

To obtain a license, would-be guides have to fill out a series of forms, pay hundreds of dollars in fees and pass a written examination that tests an arbitrary hodgepodge of knowledge about the District. The test itself purports to cover 14 topics, ranging from “Government” to “Architectural” and “Regulations” — a subject most tourists are surely eager to hear about.

Visitors to the District can choose from an amazing array of tours, ranging from ghost tours to food tours to television-and-movie tours. Lumping this variety into a single 100-question multiple-choice test can do nothing to make any individual visitor’s experience better. Instead, the testing requirement does what too many local and state licensing laws do: make it more difficult to start a business or change jobs into a new field.

In the past 50 years, there has been an explosion of laws that require people to get a license before they join the workforce. In the 1950s, only about one out of every 20 Americans needed a license to pursue the occupation of their choice. Today, that number is one out of every three.

These licensing requirements are not mere annoyances: They have real consequences. Take Tonia Edwards and Bill Main, who run Segs in the City, which offers Segway-based tours of D.C.’s monuments and embassies. As they lead groups of Segway-riding tourists through the city, they describe the sights and stories of our nation’s capital, all while teaching their customers to ride a Segway — in most cases, for the first time. No license is required for the Segway, but because Edwards and Main haven’t gone through the costly motions required to get the city’s permission, telling stories turns the pair into criminals.

The government has no business deciding who can or cannot be a storyteller. That is why Edwards and Main joined with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit against the city last week, seeking to vindicate their First Amendment right to communicate for a living — the same right enjoyed by stand-up comedians, journalists and actors.

Particularly with an economy in recovery, and literally millions of people seeking to move to new jobs, we cannot have government enforcing laws that accomplish nothing but make it harder to work. The explosion of licensing requirements has taken us well beyond the point of even plausibly protecting the public, and it is past time for the D.C. government to realize that residents and visitors are hardy enough to survive a little unauthorized description.

Robert McNamara is a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice.

By editors  | September 17, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic  
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Would you like some cheese to go with your whine? Mr. McNamara sounds like the type of rube who would search out the cheapest surgeon to take out his appendix, no pesky worries about whether or not they are board certified.

There is a valid interest in assuring that tourist guides in DC give accurate information. Next to the government, tourism and hospitality are DC's second highest industry. How else to assure that those putting themselves forth as guides have body of knowledge upon which to tell visitor about our fine city?

As a matter of fact it is a common practice in many popular tourist destinations to ensure that guides are up to the task by licensing tests.

Posted by: HokieAnnie | September 19, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

You mean everything I learned in school, read in the hundreds of free brochures, saw in a museum, or read in The Post I can't share with friends, family or strangers visiting the city because I am not licensed to disperse such information? What knucklehead(s) made this regulation?

Posted by: interactingdc | September 19, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Unanswered questions:

a) How many people are registered as certified D.C. sightseeing tour guides?

b) Who in the D.C. 'government' gets to pocket the fees from this joke of a program?

Posted by: kinkysr | September 19, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse


You're free to give your friends and family tours of DC without being licensed. You just can't charge money for the tours or claim to be a DC tour guide.

You've swallowed this guy's propaganda hook, line and sinker. Hmmmm, maybe you need more schooling.

Posted by: HokieAnnie | September 19, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

One wonders if The Institute of Justice plans to challenge the bar exam as an infringement of free speech for non licensed people who want to call themselves lawyers. After all, they can't speak in court without passing a test.

The whining here is on behalf of Segs in the City and not on the part of their employees (who, no doubt, were told by their employer to be plaintiffs in this utterly frivolous lawsuit). Segs simply wants to hire unlicensed people because they are cheaper than licensed people. When I got my tour guide license, by the way, the paperwork was a pain but the fees were not what I would characterize as enormous.

The bar exam is more expensive.

Posted by: yenta1 | September 19, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

a) a few hundred- this program has been in place for decades. It's nothing new. Many cities require commercial tour guides to be licensed to ensure proper info is being passed on.

b)the Dep't of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs oversees commercial guide licenses.

Posted by: tropic_bloom100 | September 19, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

If you're taking money for your "work", you're a business. The city has the right to require certain standerds for any business. Stop whining.

Posted by: jckdoors | September 20, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Licensing is just a scheme used to restrict competition and increase prices. Stop the Nanny state. Americans can take care of themselves.

Posted by: lowonprozac | September 20, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

In addition to authoring this article, Mr. McNamara is also representing two people from Maryland who are challenging this law in court. They own a sightseeing business, and they do not want to foot the bill of licensing their employees. The key issue is that they run a business, and they charge people money for these tours. The District has the ability and duty to regulate business activity. No one is limiting their freedom of speech. If they wanted to give free tours expressing their political ideology, then it would be constitutionally protected. What they are doing, however, is conducting business, and the district has an interest in assuring the quality of these tours in some way for tourists who come here and may not have enough information to know whether they are buying a quality tour our not. Also, though Mr. McNamara makes light of testing knowledge of regulations on the exam, I'd like to know that a tour guide leading a troupe of 30 or so people on Segways is able to lead them through traffic lights without disrupting traffic or running over pedestrians.

Posted by: danny7 | September 20, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

The city (politicians and bureaucrats) is going to set “standards”?! Bwah, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Posted by: lowonprozac | September 20, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Some of the comments here are downright scary. Are people really in favor of a country where police have the right to arrest and imprison you for illegally describing a landmark? Do you honestly feel that the need for "accurate" information is so great that it warrants the use of force? The purpose of government is to protect your rights. Unless you're arguing that you have a right to get a city-approved description of a landmark, in which case... you're nuts.

Posted by: lehmanbrian | September 20, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

And the problem with tour guides having to have a permit and pass a test is? Look, if people are charging people to give them a tour, then the municipality should certainly be in charge of the information being disseminated. What if you had a multitude of tour operations going on and they were all giving out erroneous and conflicting information?

Posted by: nan1 | September 20, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

And the problem with tour guides having to have a permit and pass a test is? Look, if people are charging people to give them a tour, then the municipality should certainly be in charge of the information being disseminated. What if you had a multitude of tour operations going on and they were all giving out erroneous and conflicting information?

Posted by: nan1 | September 20, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

The test is really not that difficult. I suspect that if Segway were really interested in providing quality tours, they would hire licensed guides. Instead the lawsuit is about their preference for inexpensive unlicensed people. The lawsuit is not about free speech. It is about the Segway company's bottom line.

Posted by: yenta1 | September 24, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

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