The great 19th Century American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw once wrote, “the trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.” It seems fitting, as a professional educator, that I have a quote like this at my disposal. Everyday I confront young adults (and sometimes their parents) who think that “they have it all figured out”, when really none of us do. Learning is a lifetime process, I never claim to know everything about the subject matter that I teach. With that being said, I also take pride in the fact that I went through several years of training and experience to get to the position I am now in today.
It was with this idea in mind that I was fascinated to read about a pending court verdict before the 3rd US Federal Court of Appeals regarding a trio of Philadelphia tour guides and the city. In 2008 Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter signed into law an ordinance that required all registered tour guides in the City of Brotherly Love to pass a written history test and paying a $25 annual licensing fee before they start their jobs after complaints from visitors that tour operators were twisting and fabricating stories of the city’s history. At the time, it seemed like a no brainier. Several other cities such as Washington DC, New Orleans, and Savannah, Georgia require their city tour guides to pass official history tests before beginning work. The same could be said at other historical sites around the Commonwealth such as the Gettysburg National Military Park, where perspective battlefield guides undergo both a written and oral exam before ever being trusted with leading visitors around the battlefield. It seemed only fitting to have a formal examination for tour guides, reasoned civic officials, especially when you consider the rich history that Philadelphia has and the image it portrayed to the rest of the country and the world as the birthplace of American democracy. If anything, the test would ensure “minimum competency”, they claimed. (To read more on this story from the Washington Post, click here)
Regardless of the reasoning, three Philadelphia tour guides – Mike Tait, Ann Boulais and Josh Silver – have challenged the law in court, claiming that it violates their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. They argue that the government cannot limit legal speech, or even the occasional skewed or misleading fact. “The First Amendment protects your right to communicate for a living, and that’s true whether you’re a tour guide or a newspaper reporter, or a stand-up comedian,” said Robert J. McNamara, a lawyer from the Institute of Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based organization that handles government intrusion cases, who is also representing the guides. He argues that his clients are already well versed in American and Philadelphia history and would not fight a voluntary test, but believes that a mandatory test and annual fee would amount to licensing free speech and historical interpretation. Mr. McNamara also pointed out that the law has never been properly enforced because of budget cuts and is not likely to be implemented any time soon. “Government officials aren’t allowed to just hide in the bushes until they feel like jumping out and taking away your rights,” he claimed in a published interview. “The tour-guide licensing law violates the First Amendment, and it should be struck down.”
Despite McNamara’s point of view, it seems unlikely that the court will overturn the law. City attorney Elise Bruhl argued that since there is no “credible threat” of enforcement while the guides are working, the law has “no effect on the plaintiffs’ behavior” while they are taking questions and giving directions to tourists. Once the guides pass their test, he argued, the city is not trying to restrict their ability to wow visitors with their historical knowledge or presentation style, just to make sure they are competent and accurate.
Regardless of how the court rules in this case, I think that we are loosing sight of the real intention of this Philadelphia law. The true reasoning behind this law, as I understood it, was to make sure the city of Philadelphia had competent and knowledgeable tour guides for the benefit of the over 27 million visitors that come to the city each year. If such an ordinance as this is considered such a major violation of the First Amendment, than why not get ride of the requirement that states that public educators need to take the Praxis exams? Why should I, as a college-educated historian, be forced to take a formal test that costs between $80 and $130 that measures my knowledge of American and global history when I already hold a degree in that subject? Doesn’t that show I already have the appropriate background knowledge? Shouldn’t that be enough? Get Mr. McNamara on the phone for my case as well!!!!
Personally, when I go to a historic site or I go on a tour of a famous city, I want to know that the information I have getting is accurate, not some fluff that our “guide” made up on his car ride into work.
If you have your own thoughts on the ongoing legal battle over the Philadelphia tour guide licensing law, feel free to post your comment!!!
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