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Tour Guides Say Savannah Is Silencing Them

SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) - Savannah makes it a crime to tell stories to paying tour groups without passing "unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles" to get a city license, a lawsuit filed by tour guides claims.

Licensed tour guides Michelle Freenor and Dan Leger sued the city in federal court. Freenor's husband Steven, a history teacher, and Jean Soderlind and her tour guide company Ghost Talk, Ghost Walk are co-plaintiffs in the action.

"In this country, anyone should be free to talk, just as anyone should be free not to listen," Leger, who gives tours as "Savannah Dan," said. "The best defense against a bad tour guide is the same as the best defense against a bad stand-up comedian - don't listen to them." (press release)

"Under Savannah's regulations, plaintiffs are subject to fines and even time in jail if they talk to their customers without the city's permission," the complaint states. "To obtain that permission, plaintiffs must surmount a series of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles -- including a multiple-choice test and examination by a doctor. Plaintiffs are committed to leading high-quality, accurate, and entertaining tours. However, under the First Amendment, plaintiffs are entitled to speak freely, without being subject to a program under which the government determines who may speak and who may not."

Savannah requires a permit for narrators who give guided tours within the city. Applicants must pay a fee and pass a 100-question test on the history and architecture of the city, which they must retake every three years.

"The study guide and the city's exam have no relevance to the types of stories told on many tours," the plaintiffs claim. "For instance, many tours offered in Savannah consist of ghost stories, folk knowledge, restaurant or retail recommendations, or information concerning the filming of Hollywood movies such as 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' or 'Forrest Gump.' The City's exam does not test prospective tour guides on these subject areas."

The permit also requires a background check with every annual renewal and a doctor's certificate about the applicant's fitness for the job, which must be updated every two years.

Moreover, guides who work for multiple companies must get a separate license for each company and pay a separate fee to maintain each license.

Violators of the city's "guide licensing scheme" face up to $1,000 in fines and up to 30 days imprisonment or forced participation in a municipal "work gang," according to the complaint.

In addition, Savannah requires tour guides to pay a special speech tax based on the size of their audience. The city charges $1 per adult audience member and 50 cents for children aged four to 12. Guides must pay the tax even when they are not paid for giving tours, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs claim that all other economic activities in the historic district, including "scavenger hunts" involving tourists, are exempt from such taxes.

Lead plaintiff Michelle Freenor, whose tours focus on Savannah's history and trivia about the city, says she is concerned about renewing her license due to health issues, which may prevent doctors from signing her certificate. She claims her husband, who teaches American History at a local high school and at Columbia College in Hinesville, Ga., must fulfill the licensing requirements to be able to fill in for her or give tours to his students during field trips.

Leger, who has worked as a tour guide for six years, plans to expand his business but cannot find licensed guides due to the hassle of getting a license, the complaint says.

Co-plaintiff Soderlind, whose company organizes ghost tours, claims she decided not to renew her license for the same reasons.

The plaintiffs claim the city's speech tax and licensing requirements do not advance any government interest.

They seek an injunction and a declaration that the requirements violate the First Amendment.

They are represented by Anne Lewis with Strickland Brockington Lewis, of Atlanta, and Robert McNamara and Robert Everett Johnson with the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

"There is no 'tour guide' exception to the First Amendment," Johnson said in a press release. "It would be unimaginable for the government to impose similar burdens on other people who talk or write for a living-like journalists, poets or stand-up comedians. Tour guides are no different from any other storytellers and are entitled to the same constitutional protection."

The Institute for Justice filed similar lawsuits challenging licensing requirements in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. The Institute prevented Philadelphia from instituting a guide license in 2008. More recently, the D.C. Circuit struck down D.C.'s licensing requirement for tour guides as a violation of the First Amendment.

However, a federal appellate court in New Orleans rejected the constitutional challenge to that city's law. The Institute on Tuesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the New Orleans decision.

"Both the lawsuit in Savannah and the Supreme Court petition are about more than ghost tours," attorney Robert McNamara said. "They are about the basic principle that, in this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to rather than relying on the government to decide who is going to get to speak. Government officials in Savannah, New Orleans and elsewhere are getting that principle exactly backwards, and we will continue fighting until they get it - and the First Amendment - right."

Savannah's city attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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