Washington DC Tour Guides Take License Fight to Court of Appeals, Citing First Amendment Violations

The Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a First Amendment case brought before it by a group of city tour guides today. Bill Main and Tonia Edwards, owners of Segs in the City, a D.C.-based tour service that specializes in historical and cultural tours of the capital region, say that D.C. city regulations requiring all tour guides be licensed in order to work legally run directly against the ideals of freedom of speech put forth in the First Amendment. “We are being told that we have to have a license to speak,” Main commented in an interview with local news service WTOP.

The case was first brought before the U.S. District Court in 2010. However, after that body upheld D.C.’s licensing regulations, Main and Edwards, along with attorney Robert McNamara, pushed the fight before the Court of Appeals. In addition to arguing the legislation is unconstitutional, they’ll also point out the inconsistency in licensing, given that city bus drivers, who the group argues are tour guides, require no such licensing.

Not the First Time Licensing Has Been Allowed to Stand in the Way of American Civil Liberties

This certainly isn’t the first time a cry of unconstitutionality has been brought before the American legal system. Increasingly staunch regulations over when and how Americans can protest, yet another right guaranteed by the First Amendment, has raised questions over abridgment in recent years. More specifically, fees and the need to seek permits before highly controversial events, from the G8 summit to presidential debates, is seen by law professionals and ordinary American citizens as a similar barrier to their being able to fully exercise their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, these fees and licenses have been held up as perfectly constitutional when brought before the courts.

Could Arguing Under Employment Protections of Free Speech Be the Way to Go?

Given that challenges to licensing have been struck down so unceremoniously before, it admittedly does not look good for Washington D.C.’s tour guide community. However, there is another tactic they could try. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees speaking in the interest of public good were exercising a protected action guaranteed to them by the First Amendment. In this, neither employers nor government could punish or otherwise limit speech. While Segs in the City is a private organization, taking the angle of offering a service invaluable to the public good could help sway the courts in their favor. Whether or not this tactic and others employed in the suit will amount to anything will be made clear as the case is decided this summer.

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