Did you know that all Washington, DC-based tourism guides are required to be licensed by the city? They are, but that law is being challenged in free speech grounds.
The owners of a company called Segs in the City – all of its tours are done on Segways – is suing the District over the law, arguing the city has no right to tell them who they can hire to lead tourists around the nation’s capitol on those dorky contraptions.
It is a fight that was apparently brought about by complaints from members of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington D.C. Or as the Washington City Paper puts it, the “tour community is ‘self-policing.’”
The union itself is not a party to the case but its members demanded that Segs in the City license its members. The company uses non-union guides, mostly college kids who don’t stick around for long.
“These folks kept saying, ‘You have to be licensed,’” co-owner Bill Main is quoted as saying. But he refused.
The other tour guides are also spreading rumors that the Segway tours are dangerous, claiming tourists are often fall and hurt themselves, and that the Segway guides are giving tourists inaccurate information. (The City Paper found that “a public records request for Segway accidents that generated a police report in the past year yielded just three incidents.”)
The company’s libertarian-minded owners are now hoping to get the law itself thrown out on constitutional grounds. Their case was dismissed in District Court and is now on appeal. Robert McNamara at the Institute for Justice is representing the owners pro bono.
This is not exactly a high-stakes case. Segs in the City was never actually fined by the District. In fact, the city has issued exactly one citation ever for unlicensed guides. Enforcement is that lax.
Nevertheless, it an interesting story for what it says about the licensing process itself. It isn’t about protecting tourists. It is about the union trying to control the industry. As the City Paper notes:
Indeed, whether or not the Guild members’ accounts of hearing erroneous information on tours is true, there is no obvious evidence that holding a license makes someone a good tour guide or that not holding one makes someone bad. By the admission of numerous Guild members, the test isn’t even very difficult—so passing it is hardly evidence of prodigious knowledge. The main benefit to being a licensed tour guide might be access to the Guild (which only admits licensed guides, who must also pass written and oral exams and pay a $100 membership fee). Through the Guild comes access to the lucrative step-on guide jobs: hopping on motorcoaches bearing large tour groups and providing narration. But that particular feature benefits the guide more than the tourists.
“I think not only should there be licensing,” guild member John Ciccone tells the City Paper, “but it should be far more stringent and demanding than it is… I think it’s a good idea for guides in our nation’s capital to have some standard of knowledge and skill. It’s a way we project ourselves.”