Talk About the Bill of Rights, Get 90 Days in Jail

In Washington, DC, talking about the Bill of Rights can land you in jail for 90 days.

Our nation’s capital has a licensing scheme in place that makes it illegal for anyone to “guide or escort” anyone else for hire without first getting the government’s permission. To get the license, which the Washington Post editorial board labeled a Tour de farce, eager entrepreneurs must first pay hundreds of dollars in fees, fill out a bunch of forms and pass an arbitrary test.

That is, they need to jump through all sorts of needless hoops before they’re allowed to speak.

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The bottom line is that the Constitution protects your right to communicate for a living, whether you are a journalist, a stand-up comedian, a musician, or a tour guide. The government cannot be in the business of deciding who may speak and who may not.

That is why two Washington, DC, tour guides–Tonia Edwards and Bill Main, who run a company called Segs in the City–joined forces with the Institute for Justice to file a major federal lawsuit challenging DC’s tour-guide licensing scheme as a violation of their fundamental constitutional rights. Video and photos of the press conference are online.

Nearly every day, Tonia and Bill teach a group of people how to ride Segways and then take them around Washington, DC, on a tour of the city. Their business is located near the National Archives, so one of the things they tell their customers is where the Bill of Rights is located. For this, the city government could throw them in prison for three months.

The issue at stake transcends political ideology. Matt Yglesias, the influential blogger for the Center for American Progress, recently wrote about DC’s draconian law on his excellent blog:

[T]his sure seems like bad policy to me. It’s a barrier to entry that’s nice for existing tour guides and for companies in the “help tour guides pass our exam” industry, but that’s ultimately bad for visitors to the city and bad for DC residents who might want to make some money giving tours. You don’t need a license to be a tour guide in Boston and as best I can tell everything’s fine . . . . Customers there are protected by the general laws against fraud and other forms of criminal misconduct as well as whatever discipline the marketplace and people’s concern for their reputation provides.

IJ attorney Robert McNamara points out in the Washington Post that DC’s licensing scheme is part of larger, nationwide problem:

In the past 50 years, there has been an explosion of laws that require people to get a license before they join the workforce. In the 1950s, only about one out of every 20 Americans needed a license to pursue the occupation of their choice. Today, that number is one out of every three.

Simply put, occupational licensing in the United States is out of control. The fact that you cannot even talk without a license in the nation’s capital is just another example of government gone wrong.

Click here for more on the lawsuit. The Institute for Justice is also online at facebook, You Tube and twitter.