Federal judge rejects motion to dismiss tour guide suit

ARLINGTON, Va. (WCBD) — U.S. District Judge David C. Norton denied the city of Charleston’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the city’s tour guide licensing requirements. Judge Norton also ruled that the First Amendment applies to the city’s tour guides, who simply talk for a living. The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice on behalf of three would-be Charleston tour guides earlier this year.

Judge Norton roundly rejected attempts by city attorneys to portray tour guide licensing as no different from laws about selling automobiles: “Automobiles do not convey messages,” Judge Norton wrote, “while tour guide services do. Therefore, it is clear that the regulation of tour guide services implicates speech, and some form of First Amendment scrutiny is necessary.”

RELATED: Charleston Tour Guides get their day in court

He did decline, however, to order the city to stop enforcing the law during the pendency of the lawsuit, noting that the fact record in the case was undeveloped and that he could not be certain how the case would come out.

“Today’s opinion vindicates the important idea that the First Amendment protects people who talk for a living, whether they are journalists, historians, or tour guides,” said IJ Attorney Arif Panju. “Simply put, there is no ‘tour guide’ exception to the First Amendment and the judge rightly rejected the city’s invitation to invent one.”

RELATED: Judge mulls suit over telling Charleston’s tales

The lawsuit has already sent Charleston officials into retreat: In April, only one week before its first court appearance in the case, Charleston approved changes to the tour-guide licensing requirement to eliminate a longstanding requirement that would-be guides pass an oral exam and to retroactively change the required passing score to ensure that two of the three plaintiffs in the case would be eligible for a license.

“From the moment we filed this lawsuit, Charleston officials have acted like they believe this law is unconstitutional,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “They are right. While today’s decision does not prevent the city from continuing to enforce the law, it does make clear that the judge is willing to strike the law down once we have a chance to put all of the evidence in front of him. We are eager to do so.”

RELATED: Charleston City Council set to discuss tour guide ordinance

The Institute for Justice is aided by local counsel Sean A. O’Connor of the Finkel Law Firm. To learn more about this case and IJ’s national efforts to protect occupational speech, visit http://www.ij.org.

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