D.C. tour guide license regulation draws scrutiny in appeals hearing

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - Washington D.C.'s tour guides may no longer need to obtain licenses before they can show tourists around the city's sites if a court rules in favor of one District tour operator.

Currently, D.C. requires tour guides to be licensed and be knowledgeable about the city history and its iconic architecture. But Segway tour operator (and owner of Segs in the City) Bill Main says that this needs to change and that he is now suing, arguing that these requirements violate the First Amendment.

"We are being told to we have to have a license to speak, we felt that was not correct, that's not what the constitution says," said Main.

To obtain a license, tour guides must pass a history test and submit to a criminal background check. The fees involved can cost a guide more than $200.

"In this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to," Segs in the City's attorney Robert McNamara said. "We don't rely on the government to decide who's going to get to speak."

In court Monday, the city's lawyers were asked by a judge if a tour guide would still require a license if he or she were to play a recording instead of speaking to a group live. When the city's lawyers said that situation wouldn't require a license, the judge followed up by asking what would stop a drunk on the street from making a recording and playing it for visitors.

The D.C. Attorney General’s Office is defending the city in this case, calling the District’s policy, “content neutral.” It adds in a statement:

"Licensing of tour guides is not based on what they say. It does not affect the content of any tour and neither requires nor prohibits any speech of any kind...The District has an interest in assuring visitors will be properly cared for and guided."

If the three-judge panel in Monday's hearing rules against Segs in the City's owners, they could be forced to spend months in jail and pay a significant fine.