Did Ben Franklin write the First Amendment to the Declaration of Independence five centuries ago so that ill-informed tour guides could peddle historical inaccuracies in contemporary Philadelphia? That seems to be the misguided position of a group of Old City guides.
A few years ago, justifiably disturbed by reports of tour guides describing such imaginary historical events as Washington’s dinner with Lincoln in Society Hill, City Council moved to require that guides pass a basic history test and pay a modest licensing fee. Three tour guides challenged this as infringing on their free-speech rights, and their bid to overturn the law was in federal appeals court last week.
In a sad comment on this particular point in our history, the city has decided it can’t afford to enforce the licensing law. Its lawyers argue that the suit against it is therefore premature. Last year, a U.S. District Court judge agreed, finding there’s no issue to rule on as long as the law isn’t in effect.
But the tour guides and their advocate, the libertarian Institute for Justice, are so insistent on their right to make stuff up that they asked the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to require a ruling on the matter anyway.
If the courts do decide to weigh in, it should be to uphold this ordinance.
Free speech is one of our most crucial constitutional protections (and, yes, we know James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights in the 18th century.) But no one is being prevented from standing in front of Franklin Court and telling passersby that its former head of household fathered 69 illegitimate children (another tall tale reportedly told by a Philly tour guide). Rather, in the interests of consumers and the city, those who want to work as paid tour guides in the nation’s birthplace are only being asked to comply with a moderate licensing regime.
Not even newspapers — which are more central to the founders’ free-speech concerns than, say, the ravings of duck-boat drivers — are permitted to dispense false information with impunity. Expression is given the presumption of protection, but it can be regulated for good reasons.
The importance of Philadelphia’s history, as well as of the tourism economy surrounding it, certainly qualifies as a good reason to require those profiting from it to demonstrate minimal competence. Everyone else will still be free to wax fanciful about the spirit of ’77.