D.C. tour guides say license requirement violates free speech

WASHINGTON — The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is tackling whether it’s a violation of free speech to require tour guides be licensed in the District.

Right now, D.C. sightseeing regulations state that “no person shall for hire guide or escort any person through or about the District of Columbia unless he/she shall have first secured a license to do so.”

Bill Main and Tonia Edwards own Segs in the City, a tour group that takes visitors on guided tours aboard Segways. They call the regulations unconstitutional.

“This is first amendment abuse,” said Main. “We are being told that we have to have a license to speak.”

The company sought an injunction to stop the licensing practice back in 2010, but after a decision by the U.S. District Court for D.C. upheld the city’s rules, the two took their case to the appeals court.

“We’re confident the court is going to recognize the core principle in this case, and that’s that the Constitution protects your right to speak for the living,” says Robert McNamara, the attorney representing Segs in the City.

During arguments, attorney Mary Wilson, representing the District of Columbia, says the goal of this regulation is to “assure that these people, who are charging money, and holding themselves out have some minimal competency in what they are doing.”

The judges raised concerns about people, such as pan handlers, giving tours but they also questioned the clarity of the regulations.

One argument from the tour operator is that, in the District, bus drivers can play back prerecorded tour audio and not be required to obtain a tour guide license.

“It just seems very crazy to have to license a certain sector of the tour guide population and not the other section of the tour guide population, being the bus drivers,” Edwards told the media after the hearing.

“D.C. can regulate to protect the public health and safety. What they can’t do is what they are trying to … impose regulations on speech, without any evidence that the speech is causing real harm,” said McNamara.

Main and Edwards say it is a matter of principle that they refuse to get the license. Main says guides don’t need regulators to put them out of business.

“If you’re going to do a tour around Washington and you don’t know where the White House is then you’re going to be out of business really quick,” Main said.

But Main did say he gives the college kids he hires the money to get the license so they don’t find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Anyone caught performing the duties of a tour guide without a license can be fined up to $300 and spend up to 90 days in jail.

A decision in the case is expected sometime this summer. If necessary, Edwards and Main plan to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

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