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Some tour guides challenge constitutionality of District's licensing test

Tonia Edwards, of Segs in the City, leads a group of segway tourists out for an afternoon run.
Tonia Edwards, of Segs in the City, leads a group of segway tourists out for an afternoon run. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 7:22 PM

Whenever Tonia Edwards leads a Segway tour to the Capitol, the route takes her past the Newseum, where she points out the First Amendment etched on the building's facade.

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Edwards doesn't mention just how well she knows the amendment's 45 words. Instead, she continues to the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, which has become a place of particular interest for local tour guides - especially Edwards and her husband, Bill Main, who own and operate Segs in the City.

Last week, the couple joined the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm, in filing a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the District's tour-guide regulations, which make it illegal to lead a paid tour in Washington without a license.

The $200 licensure process, which includes a multiple-choice exam on Washington history, violates those First Amendment rights, Edwards says: "They're telling me that I have to be licensed to talk to my customers? That's a real violation of my right to free speech."

Edwards and Main want the court to throw out the 108-year-old code, which, along with the 100-question quiz, was updated in July.

But others in the District's competitive tour-guide business aren't rushing to stand alongside the Baltimore couple.

On a listserv maintained by the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C., whose membership includes more than a third of the District's 998 licensed guides, most posters support the city's regulations, which were recently changed to include guides leading Segway tours.

"Some of our members would be happy to see the law go away, but the majority feel it's important that there's a licensing test," says Jim Heegeman, the guild's president. "It confers some sort of status on you."

Pete McCall, a Washington tour guide since 2005, agrees.

"It's good to have regulations and a licensing test," McCall says. "We should know what we're talking about when we lead our clients on a tour of the city. As professional tour guides, we should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the District of Columbia and its history."

The exam, however, is purely a qualifying test. The city doesn't monitor what guides say.

"Passing the tour guide license exam is much like passing the driver's license exam," says Linda K. Argo, director of the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). "It shows a person has demonstrated basic competence but does not ensure they will be an excellent driver."

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