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Federal Court strikes down licensing exam

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The D.C. government failed to explain why a licensing scheme for tour guides, complete with a 100-question licensing exam, was necessary to prevent real harms to the public, the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held June 24. Reversing a federal district court ruling that had upheld the requirement as only an incidental, limited burden on free speech, the appellate court said the licensing scheme was unconstitutional. “The city has provided no convincing explanation as to why a more finely tailored regulatory scheme would not work,” wrote Judge Janice Rogers Brown.

Until the ruling, paid tour guides operating without a license could be subject to a $300 fine or 90 days in jail. The ruling means that “Segs in the City,” which leads tours around Washington, DC, on rented Segway scooters, can continue without its guides’ having to take the exam covering the city’s attractions, geography, and  history.

The court was critical of the law’s focus on familiarity with the city over other aspects of tour guiding that might present more potential danger to the public. “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? 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?”

Under the U.S. Constitution, free speech is protected, the court explained, and any restriction must be justified based on real harms, and evidence showing the restriction is an appropriate antidote. The licensing exam, the court said, failed this test.
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