News & Politics

DC’s Tour Guide Regulations Are Unconstitutional, Court Rules

Federal judges say a licensing test given to tour operators violates the First Amendment.

These dorky electric scooters are constitutional warriors. Photograph by Flickr user Patrick Müller.

A ruling Friday from the federal Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit could have a big effect on the District’s tourism industry by tossing out the city’s 110-year-old regulations over tour guides. The District’s system for testing and licensing tour guides through a 100-question multiple-choice examination is unconstitutional, a three-judge panel wrote, agreeing with the operators of a Segway tour company that the test violates tour guides’ First Amendment rights.

Bill Main and Tonia Edwards, a husband-and-wife team who have operated the popular Segs in the City tours since 2003, sued the city in 2010, saying the test—which quizzes applicants on their knowledge of DC history—restricts what tour guides can tell their customers and protects older tour guides from new competition.

The tour-guide regulations were first implemented in 1904, when Congress ordered that anyone seeking to make a profit off visitors be licensed to protect tourists from swindlers. The exam was last revised in 2010 to include more contemporary details, but remained more a test of historical knowledge than of the rules and regulations a respectable tour guide must follow.

A lower court that first heard the lawsuit sided with the District, but the Court of Appeals, just one rung below the Supreme Court, overturned that decision. In her opinion, Judge Janice Rogers Brown writes that rote memorization of geography and history offers little real protection against scam artists.

“How does memorization of addresses and other, pettifogging data about the District’s points of interest protect tourists from being swindled or harassed by charlatans?” Brown writes. “Why would a licensed tour guide be any less likely to treat tourists unfairly and unsafely by abandoning them in some far-flung spot or charging additional amounts for return passage?—surely, success on the District’s history exam cannot be thought to impart both knowledge and virtue. The District never bothers to engage with these and other basic inquiries.”

The District has not said whether it intends to appeal the ruling. While the city’s tour guides might find some relief in not having to pay a licensing fee and take a test, some of them still see the upside of tour-guide licensing, and not just because it offers a paper guarantee against hornswoggling.

“A license can do several good things,” says Tim Krepp, who conducts bus and walking tours around town. “It’s an identifying marker. The Washington Monument will give out six tickets to families but 50 tickets to licensed tour guides.”

Krepp does not like the test DC requires tour guides to complete, but he disagrees with Segs and the City’s argument that it violates the First Amendment. “I found no constraint of my free speech by my licensing,” he says.

Instead, Krepp says, if DC is going to quiz its tour guides, it should look at New York, where he is also licensed. While New York’s tour-guide test has geography and history components, it also asks about practical things like bus routing.

“I’m not talking about how tall the Washington Monument is,” Krepp says. “What I am talking about is moving a bus around town. Do you know how to turn up 17th Street at the right time? I wish the regulation was more focused on that.”

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.