Judge: License law violated speech rights of Georgia guides

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia’s oldest city violated the free-speech rights of tour guides by requiring them to pass a written history test and get a license, a federal judge said in a ruling that’s largely symbolic since the licensing law was scrapped years ago.

The ruling Monday by U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. came more than four years after tour guides in Savannah sued City Hall over the 1978 licensing ordinance. The tour guides argued city officials were violating their First Amendment rights by deciding who was qualified to tell visitors about Savannah’s history and architecture.

Savannah officials at first defended the ordinance as necessary to protect the city’s nearly $3 billion tourism economy. But the city council ended up repealing the licensing requirement in October 2015 while the lawsuit was still pending.

Though the ruling targets an already defunct law, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice said it’s another legal victory after courts previously struck down similar licensing requirements for tour guides in Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. The group filed those lawsuits as well as the Savannah court challenge.

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“In this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to,” Robert McNamara, an attorney for the institute, said in a statement Tuesday. “We do not rely on government to decide who will get to speak.”

Other cities including New York and New Orleans still have licensing laws for tour guides on their books. The New Orleans law was upheld by a federal judge. Charleston has appealed a 2018 ruling that its ordinance was unconstitutional.

One issue remains undecided in the Savannah lawsuit. Tour guides also challenged a $1-per-adult customer tax that tour guides are still required to pay to the city. City officials say the money helps pay for maintenance on Savannah’s historic monuments. Tour guides argue the tax is unfair because other businesses that profit from tourism don’t have to pay it.

The judge asked both sides to submit new legal briefs on whether the federal court has jurisdiction over the tax issue.

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