NYT covers lawsuit challenging Savannah tour guide requirements; city council revises ordinance but leaves controversial exam in place

I’ve written several times here and in my City Talk columns — see here and here — about the federal lawsuits filed against cities with tour guide licensing requirements that include written tests, physical exams, and other bureaucratic hurdles.

Coincidentally, one night last week, I was walking up Bull Street when I overheard a tour guide telling a sizable group that, by law, no building in Savannah can be taller than the steeple of Independent Presbyterian Church. Um…

Once tour guides have passed the written exam, they are free to say whatever they want to tourists. Curiously, that point has been cited in court in other cities to suggest that testing requirements are not an abridgment of the free speech guaranteed under the first amendment. Among historians, preservations, academics, and friends with whom I’ve discussed the lawsuit and the test, there seems general agreement that the written test has proven no guarantee of quality tours — but most want to keep the test anyway.

The District of Columbia’s written exam — and several other requirements — were struck down by a federal court, while a similar test in New Orleans was upheld by a federal court. It seems increasingly likely that the Supreme Court will need to decide if some or all licensing requirements are unconstitutional.

From the NYT’s Lawsuit May Reshape Tourist Industry in History-Rich Savannah on 12/21:

In June, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the licensing rules put in place by local officials in Washington, including a test with 100 questions, the same length as Savannah’s examination.

“How does memorization of addresses and other, pettifogging data about the District’s points of interest protect tourists from being swindled or harassed by charlatans?” Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote in a 25-page opinion. “Why would a licensed tour guide be any less likely to treat tourists unfairly and unsafely by abandoning them in some far-flung spot or charging additional amounts for return passage? Surely, success on the District’s history exam cannot be thought to impart both knowledge and virtue.”

But the same month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld similar standards in New Orleans. The city, the court found, did nothing to limit what guides could say and was only trying to maintain its brand and its visitors.

Interestingly, yesterday the city of Savannah swiftly changed one of the requirements — the annual physical exam. From Savannah revises tour guide ordinance in the Savannah Morning News:

The city has eliminated a requirement that paid tour guides obtain a physician’s certification as part of the permitting process.

The amended ordinance adopted by the Savannah City Council on Tuesday also makes it clear that permitting requirements only apply to those tour guides who are being paid for their services. The clarification was added after some tour company owners claimed the ordinance’s language was overly restrictive — even prohibiting family members from telling their relatives about Savannah, said City Attorney Brooks Stillwell.

I think the city of Savannah is going to have to back further off on this one, just as I think they are going to have back off on a number of other initiatives. In a recent column, I compared the bureaucratic overreach of the tour guide licensing requirements to the city’s assumption that it has the right to ban anyone under 21 from restaurants with alcohol licenses. In the draft ordinance published to much derision earlier this year, city officials proposed banning anyone under 21 without a parent or guardian (huh?) from such restaurants after 10 p.m., but what would stop the city from making that 8 p.m.? Or 6 p.m.? Or all day? How in the world could city officials assume they have that kind of power to regulate both legal adults aged 18 to 20 and businesses like restaurants that are among the most common types of public accommodations?

Again from the NYT:

In Savannah, though, there are doubts that the licensing requirement will survive the scrutiny of the federal judicial system.

“My position at this point is, how do we prepare to lose?” said Bill Durrence, a Savannah native and member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association who has long supported the licensing standards. “This isn’t a political argument we can make; this is going to happen in a court of law. We can protest and we can write letters to the editor, but it’s going to have no impact on the court.”

Mr. Durrence said alternatives to the existing structure could include a voluntary certification program, which would offer guides additional credibility.

The market and the profession itself are capable of sorting this thing out. Maybe we’ll even end up with better tours if the city of Savannah gets out of the way.

Just for the heck of it, here’s a shot of the Forsyth Park fountain from January 2014. Remember when it iced over like this? Sure hope that never happens again . . .