Savannah tour guides move ahead with free speech lawsuit

Savannah tour guides move ahead with free speech lawsuit

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Months after a federal lawsuit prompted Savannah to revise a local law regulating guided tours, Dan Leger remains determined to press ahead with the case in court.

“Until they quit licensing my free speech, I won’t be satisfied,” said Leger, a tour guide who does business under the name Savannah Dan.

Leger and three others sued the city last fall over a 1978 ordinance that requires tour guides to obtain a license that requires passing a test on history and architecture. The tour guides argue Savannah is violating their First Amendment rights by deciding who’s qualified to tell visitors about Georgia’s oldest city. City Hall insists it has a duty to keep uninformed tour guides from tarnishing Savannah’s $2.3 billion tourism economy.

It appears a U.S. District Court judge will ultimately have to decide the issue. Attorneys on both sides met earlier this month after being ordered to discuss settling out of court. In a March 12 status report to the judge, lawyers for the tour guides and City Hall agreed they’re so divided that “settlement negotiations are unlikely to continue.”

Federal courts have recently decided similar lawsuits filed in two other U.S. cities. In Washington, D.C., an appellate court threw out licensing rules for tour guides. But a different appeals court declared similar rules in New Orleans don’t infringe on the rights of tour guides. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case last month.

Attorneys for a Virginia-based group, the Institute for Justice, sued on behalf of tour guides in both of those cities as well as in Savannah. In December, a month after the latest suit was filed here, the Savannah City Council amended its tour guide regulations to get rid of a requirement that guides must have a doctor declare them fit for the job. The council also clarified the law to ensure it only applies to tour guides charging money.

W. Brooks Stillwell III, Savannah’s city attorney, said the 100-question tour guide test _ which covers topics from Savannah’s 1820 yellow fever outbreak to the architects of its historic homes _ will likely get updated as well. He defended the testing requirement as a way for Savannah to “protect our brand” when it comes to tourism. Savannah has about 330 licensed tour guides.

“We don’t want people who don’t know what they’re doing out there conducting tour services,” Stillwell said. “We do not regulate what they talk about or what they say. But we want to make sure they know what they’re talking about.”

Leger, who has conducted walking tours in Savannah’s downtown historic district for seven years, said the city ordinance unfairly singles out tour guides like himself “because I talk for a living.” Obtaining a tour guide license costs $10, plus another $100 to take the history test. The lawsuit also objects to guides having to pay a $1-per-adult customer tax to the city, calling it a “speech tax” that other tour businesses don’t have to pay.

Additionally, Leger said, Savannah tour guides still must obtain a normal business license just like an antiques dealer or the owner of a souvenir shop — though there’s no test for them.

“The other side will say doctors have to pass a medical exam and restaurants have to pass a health inspection,” Leger said. “The difference is none of those are protected under the First Amendment. My job is.”

Get travel news right to your inbox!