Up until Friday, it was a jailable offense to give a tour of Washington, D.C. in exchange for money unless tour guides forked over a $200 tax and successfully passed a 100-question multiple-choice exam about the city’s various monuments, museums — and possibly its inability to empty street-corner trash cans on a timely basis.
An unanimous three-judge appellate opinion has now overturned the multiple-choice exam aspect of the peculiar local ordinance, which calls for prison sentences of up to 90 days and fines of up to $300 for unlicensed tour guides.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Tonia Edwards and Bill Main, the owners of Segs in the City, which offers “DC Safari tours” “for all tastes and preferences.”
Edwards and Main objected to the 100-question test because, they claimed, it violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.
The now-illegal test is a doozy, according to The Wall Street Journal.
There are over a dozen categories: architecture; monuments and memorials; landmark buildings; museums and art galleries; parks, gardens, zoos, and aquariums; sculptures and statues; universities; pictures; locations; historical events; dates; government; and regulations.
Would-be tour guides must achieve a score of at least 70 to pass. (Presumably, each question is worth one point.)
The appellate opinion, written by George W. Bush appointee Janice Rogers Brown, rests squarely on First Amendment grounds and pretty much humiliates the attorneys arguing for the District of Columbia’s regulatory scheme.
The three-judge decision smacks down the prior ruling of a federal district judge in favor of the city, finding the licensing requirement “to be an unconstitutional, content-based restriction of their First Amendment rights.”
It further concludes that the 100-question exam serves no “substantial government interest” and, in fact, that the District’s lawyers “failed to present any evidence the problems it sought to thwart actually exist.”
The decision also observes that tour-guide businesses are effectively regulated by the markets in which they operate. In this acute information age, the Internet is teeming with websites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor that allow consumers to crowdsource opinions about tour guides.
“One need only peruse such websites to sample the expressed outrage and contempt that would likely befall a less than scrupulous tour guide,” the ruling suggests.
Segs in the City gets four collective stars at Yelp (with 22 review) and five stars across 158 reviews at Trip Advisor. Happy reviewers were elated with tour guides who “bent over backwards” and electric vehicles that are “such a blast to ride.” Disappointed reviewers felt the tour was “quite rushed” and didn’t like the “incredibly rude” people running the office.
A representative for Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said the mayor’s office had no comment on the beatdown of a decision.
Federal bureaucrats from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (which creates and administers the test) and the District of Columbia attorney general’s office have said they are trying to figure out what to do next.
Some licensed D.C. tour guides are unhappy with the ruling.
“This is a strike against the professionalism of the industry,” licensed tour guide Bob Brennan told the Journal. “Now, anyone can get up off their couch and say, ‘I’m a tour guide.'”
Other cities which for now require tour guides to have licenses include New York; New Orleans; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga.