DC Circuit strikes down DC tour guide licensing law

June 27

The DC Circuit has handed down Edwards v. District of Columbia, an opinion striking down the District’s tour guide licensing law on First Amendment grounds. I mentioned the challenge when it was filed, and Eugene’s clinic filed an amicus brief in the case.

From the opinion by Judge Janice Rogers Brown joined by Judges Henderson and Wilkins:

In Washington, D.C., it is illegal to talk about points of interest or the history of the city while escorting or guiding a person who paid you to do so—that is, unless you pay the government $200 and pass a 100-question multiple-choice exam. The District requires that certain tour guides obtain a tour-guide license, which can be procured by paying application, license, and exam fees totaling $200, and passing the exam, of course. Operating as a paid, unlicensed tour guide is punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a fine of up to $300, or both. Believing the licensing scheme to be an unconstitutional, content-based restriction of their First Amendment rights, Appellants, Tonia Edwards and Bill Main, refused to comply and filed suit in district court. The court ultimately upheld the regulations, reasoning the scheme placed only incidental burdens on speech that were no greater than necessary to further the District’s substantial interest in promoting the tourism industry. Finding the record wholly devoid of evidence supporting the burdens the challenged regulations impose on Appellants’ speech, we reverse and
remand.

Also from the opinion:

[W]hat, pray tell, does passing the exam have to do with regulating unscrupulous tour businesses and unethical guides? 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?—surely, success on the District’s history exam cannot be thought to impart both knowledge and virtue. The District never bothers to engage with these and other basic inquiries. The questions it does answer, however, serve only to underscore the substantial mismatch between its stated objectives and the means chosen to achieve those goals.

But note Footnote 15:

We are of course aware of the Fifth Circuit’s contrary conclusion in Kagan v. New Orleans, No. 13-30801, 2014 WL 2460495 (5th Cir. June 2, 2014), which affirmed the constitutionality of a similar tour guide licensing scheme. We decline to follow that decision, however, because the opinion either did not discuss, or gave cursory treatment to, significant legal issues.

Congrats to the Institute for Justice for the win, and to Mike Scarcella for the link.

UPDATE: Co-blogger Will Baude notes the truly remarkable parentheticals that accompany the footnote. Here’s the full Footnote 15, with the parenthetical language in bold:

We are of course aware of the Fifth Circuit’s contrary conclusion in Kagan v. New Orleans, No. 13-30801, 2014 WL 2460495 (5th Cir. June 2, 2014), which affirmed the constitutionality of a similar tour guide licensing scheme. We decline to follow that decision, however, because the opinion either did not discuss, or gave cursory treatment to, significant legal issues. See Burka v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 142 F.3d 1286, 1290 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (finding as unpersuasive and declining to follow a Fifth Circuit opinion that neglected to discuss or mention binding, Supreme Court precedent); Potomac Elec. Power Co. v. Dir., Office of Workers’ Comp. Programs, 606 F.2d 1324, 1329 (D.C. Cir. 1979) (declining to follow Fifth Circuit because “it did not discuss [an] issue in its brief opinion affirming [the district court]”).

So much for the respect due a sister circuit.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.
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