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Philly guides sue over history tests, licensing

Citing their rights to free speech, three tour guides sued the city of Philadelphia on Wednesday challenging an ordinance that will require them to pass a history test and get a license before speaking about the history of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and other landmarks.

Mayor Michael Nutter signed the law in April amid concerns that some guides were perpetuating gross inaccuracies, including false claims that Benjamin Franklin had 69 illegitimate children and that three-time widow Betsy Ross killed her husbands.

But the guides, backed by a public-interest law firm, argue the city has gone too far and want the law overruled. They say their constitutional rights are being violated in the very city where the Declaration of Independence was adopted 232 years ago.

“Mistakes happen everywhere,” said Robert McNamara, attorney for the Institute of Justice, which filed the suit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “But just because mistakes occasionally happen doesn't mean the government can license who can talk. People have the right to decide who they want to listen to.”

City officials say they are trying to protect the history that brings millions of tourists to Philadelphia and generates billions of dollars in revenue every year. They don't want anyone leaving town believing that Ben Franklin stands atop City Hall (it's William Penn) or that homes were once taxed based on how wide they were.

“Tourism is a major part of our local economy,” said Douglas Oliver, a spokesman for the mayor. “It is reasonable to ensure that tourists are getting accurate information.”

The tests will start being required in October. Washington, New Orleans and Charleston have similar laws regulating tour guides. The suit is the first to challenge such tour guide regulations, McNamara said.

Ann Boulais, one of the tour guide plaintiffs, said the government should not be able to regulate what private people say on public streets. She said she would take a certification test at the behest of the tour guide's council, but not the city.

“My concern is, where does it end?” said Boulais, 49, who has been giving tours for five years. “Are you now going to license a stand-up comedian to see if he's funny?”

Oliver noted that the law applies to people who are getting paid to give tours, not to volunteers, teachers or people giving tours on private property.

But the tour guides say they can police themselves – and want the city to stay out of it.

Michael Tait, another guide represented in the suit, said he is always careful to tell his tours when something is folklore and when it is fact. He often addresses the tale that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag, explaining that it is folklore and there is no proof.

Another guide, Josh Silver, says he and most of his colleagues are accurate, if not perfect. “I simply qualify my comments and speak with honesty,” Silver said. “Certainly, I've made mistakes. I'm sure everybody has.”

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