Philadelphia vs. Ben Franklin's Secret Shame

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Speaking publicly in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall may soon require a license.

Mayor Michael Nutter signed the law in April amid concerns that some [tour] 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.

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."

I haven't been on a tour of Philly since I was forced to go as a kid, but I'd be more inclined to go back had anyone informed me about a murder-crazed seamstress-patriot. The Institute for Justice will represent three tour operators who are suing for their right to speak freely about the right to speak freely. On the flip side, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith has a column entitled "Should History Ignorance Be a Protected Right?" You could read the whole column, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone have already summarized it for you.

NEXT: The Uses of Hyperbole

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  1. I haven’t been on a tour of Philly since I was forced to go as a kid, but I’d be more inclined to go back had anyone informed me about a murder-crazed seamstress-patriot

    I kind of want to move to Philly now just to start a tour guide business featuring completely made up facts.

  2. The city of Philadelphia has it’e collective head implanted firmly between it’s collective butt cheeks.

    When I think of all the fabrications and omiisions that were part of the public school U.S. history curriculum I was taught subjected to as a child, the government banning alternatative, even bullshit, versions is downright laughable.

  3. I have a friend who’s a history professor these days, and bad tour guides just drive him up the wall. When he was a college student, he made it his mission to debunk stories told by campus tour guides.

  4. The best defense against bad information is MORE information, not LESS!

  5. As a Philadelphia resident I have to ask: The DAILY NEWS, home of the cranky Mr Anti-Political Correctness Mike Smerconish, came out with an editorial against the IJ in this case? Get out!

  6. I knew the banning of voting in bars was just the beginning of the downward spiral of Philly.

    JsD,

    It does not stop at the gun school level. In college I had an Astronomy professor spread all sorts of falsehoods about the US Space Program. Might have had something to do with her being a non-select for the Astronaut Scientist Program. One of her best ones was that Neil Armstrong got to walk on the moon first because he was the mission commander and RHIP. Did not bother mentioning that the LEM Pilot was Buzz Aldrin, who needed to stay at the controls while the Commander went outside to check things out.

    Oh, if anybody does the Pentagon tour any time soon, I have a list of corrections to that one too.

  7. Wouldn’t there be a fraud basis for suing the operators?

  8. Philly just wishes it was Washington D.C.

    Surely D.C. has some dumb-shit laws like this, right? If not, Philly got there before DC! Just like how Philly was the CAPITOL before DC!

  9. A woman in spiked heels and fishnet stockings can’t walk up to a car and say, “Hey, Joe, wanna give it a go?” even though she, too. is arguably working in the city’s tourism industry.

    That’s one of the stupidest analogies I’ve read all week. Prostitution laws have nothing to do with free-speech restrictions or the lack thereof.

  10. Wouldn’t there be a fraud basis for suing the operators?

    Possibly. So, I take the tour and then take the operator to court to get my $15 back?

    How about folks around there record these guys and post their nonsense on the intertubes, with appropriate corrections and laughter?

  11. Of course, uh, this is Central Park. This was designed in 1850 by Joe Peppitone. Built during the Civil War so the northern armies could practice fighting on . . . on grass.

  12. Does this law apply to tour guides that give free tours of the grounds? Does it apply to tour guides giving tours of privately owned property?

    I ask, because nobody seems to be addressing that point, which is obviously the most important element of this debate.

    Here’s the thing: if you wish to turn a profit through your use of public land, than the public has every right to regulate your use of that land. Vendors can’t sell souvenirs on public land without permits, why should tour guides be any different?

    If this only applies to tours given on public land by tour guides selling their services, then I have no issue here. Nobody’s free speech is being restricted, nor is their right to do business.

  13. that homes were once taxed based on how wide they were.

    I recently (like within the last month) heard this as an explanation for an older neighborhood in Louisville being entirely shotgun houses. Is this a common myth or did property taxation actually ever exist this way?

  14. Sorry to hype on my office building so much in one thread, but I hear that the gun schools still pass around the myth that the Pentagon was built with five sides to represent the five branches of the military!

    1. There have never been 5 branches of the US military.

    2. It is shaped this way because it is the shape that fit the proposed location, location was changed bu shape kept and FDR liked the unique shape for a building.

  15. Check this out, from the column:

    That point [about the importance of free speech] may have been exceeded yesterday by a fine young lawyer named Robert McNamara from an organization of constitutional zealots called the Institute for Justice. The institute claims a long string of successes in its campaigns to get government off the backs of small businesses. [Examples of stupid laws IOJ fought, all mentioned on Hit and Run back in the day.]

    It’s good to know that there are still young people in America who rise up in righteous indignation over these abuses of government power.

    But the institute and I part company on their campaign to strike down a law signed by Mayor Nutter in April to require Center City tour-guide operators to be certified, licensed and knowledgeable.

    So the columnist agrees with and admires the IOJ’s opposition to laws requiring licenses for florists, interior decorators or hair-braiders, but the second the IOJ does something with which the columnist disagrees, they become “constitutional zealots?” How does Elmer Smith define “zealot”: anyone who disagrees with me on any issue?

    Gratuituous cheap name shot: “Mayor Nutter” is a fine example of political truth in advertising.

  16. Here’s the thing: if you wish to turn a profit through your use of public land, than the public has every right to regulate your use of that land. Vendors can’t sell souvenirs on public land without permits, why should tour guides be any different?

    Because we have a Constitutional amendment that says that what you say on the public commons cannot be restricted by law?

    If I am a tour guide operator who is just absolutely adamant that the Revolutionary War didn’t really happen, the city of Philadelphia is restricting my right to say that on my tour.

    Possibly. So, I take the tour and then take the operator to court to get my $15 back?

    The fact that the amount in question is too paltry to justify litigation would seem to me to further argue against the merits of the law. Having conditioned the public to accept the licensure of occupations in “scary” cases [Oh noes! We have to license surgeons!] the state is now gradually expanding licensure into areas that have absolutely no meaningful public health or safety impact. This is what we get for trying to be reasonable and not lynching the first legislator who wanted to license any occupation whatsoever. [I mean a general historical “we”, of course.]

  17. robc,

    Not sure. I would guess that one could find someplace where that is true.

    I seem to remember that there was some practical reason for the shotgun houses, had more to do with livability. Also, seems like a good shape for increasing dwelling density without chopping up the lots too much.

  18. I am shocked that tour guides routinely omit the fact that Spiro Agnew routinely visited Philly to bugger the crack in the Liberty Bell…

  19. “Because we have a Constitutional amendment that says that what you say on the public commons cannot be restricted by law?”

    But you don’t have any right to make money doing it. So long as this law doesn’t apply to people giving tours for free or on private land, there’s no issue.

  20. Quite a conundrum for me. I’m pretty radical in how far I go with free speech. About the only thing I make exception for is slander and fraud.

    I’d be good with a fraud suit based on the tour guide representing his information as factual. But what kind of damages are we talking. Besides, most people would rather hear the myth anyway, that’s why they tell them.

    But it’s a big deal to me. Tour guides spewing bullshit has really ruined a lot of my tourism. I want to know the factual history, it’s important to me. But I don’t want to be a historian. Unless your personally acquainted with someone who can give you the scoop, you’re pretty much screwed on anything you haven’t researched yourself.

  21. Tour guides make shit up just as sparks fly upward. Good luck stopping it.

  22. People who go on tours deserve to be lied to.

  23. While I was in the aforementioned public school system, a wise man wrote these words.

    ?When I think back
    On all the crap I learned in high school
    It’s a wonder
    I can think at all
    And though my lack of edu—cation
    Hasn’t hurt me none
    I can read the writing on the wall?

    It seems appropriate for the thread.

  24. ed | July 7, 2008, 1:15pm | #
    People who go on tours deserve to be lied to.

    Why do you say that?

  25. I’d be good with a fraud suit based on the tour guide representing his information as factual.

    But is it fraud if the person doesn’t know it’s false? All lies are untruths, but not all untruths are lies.

  26. constitutional zealots

    MY LIFE FOR AUIR! (and the 2nd amendment)

  27. Can I sue the Charleston SC ghost tours for fraud? Im pretty sure they were just making shit up. But it was entertaining.

  28. And fraud in many jurisdictions requires some direct pecuniary motive on behalf of the liar following directly from the lie (I know it does here in RI). Otherwise it’s merely a form of ‘false advertising’ or ‘bad business practice’, a minor civil matter.

  29. And here I thought Benjamin Franklin was that dude who got roaring drunk, pretended to screw the Liberty Bell–while smacking its make-believe butt, which led to its cracking–and said, “Thy liberty is my wench.” Damn those tour guides!!!

  30. Jennifer,
    If the tour guide spewing information as historical fact, then she is representing herself as being a historian. If what she’s saying can be readily shown to be bullshit that no first year history student could mistake as accurate, then I’d say it’s fraud.

    But if the guide started the tour by saying something like “I am not a historian and what I tell you today may or may not be historical fact. But you can be sure that everything I tell you is a genuine legend of Philadelphia and part of our American Heritage.” I don’t think one in a thousand of the hat-wearing, camera-toting boobgeois would bat an eye.

  31. But you don’t have any right to make money doing it.

    Says who?

  32. Says who?

    The people who own the property, i.e. the citizens.

  33. Indeed, when I’m able to suspend disbelief even I can buy into the fun. I’ve had a fine time being told the “history” of Paul Bunyan and the like. What pisses me off is when the make up crap about actual historical people and events.

  34. What is the problem here? No on is restricting their right to speak, only saying they need a permit.

  35. Oh . . . so then when a history teacher of mine jokingly ripped off Family Guy for a few laughs on the holidays last year I was supposed to be offended?
    From the lips of the teacher: As we all know Christmas is the time of year when Jesus rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living . . . BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

  36. Why is a new law always the “solution”? What makes it so hard for people to understand that there are usually voluntary means to resolve issues such as these.

    How hard is it to require your employees to read the same pamphlets they sell to the tourists? How hard is it for a supervisor to ride along and audit them? How hard is it tell them not to repeat false myths about Franklin and Ross? You don’t need a law, you just need to start firing the tour guides who refuse to stick to the facts! Now that we have a law, the guides are going to stop adlibing and start reading from prepared scripts. Thus the tourists are poorer off.

  37. “Should History Ignorance Be a Protected Right?”

    Indeed. It’s well established that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago by the omnipotent hand of YHWH, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that people are threatened with jail time if they say anything different.

  38. A tour guide is not representing themselves as historians. They are representing themselves as tour guides, i.e. people who couldn’t get a better job than giving tours to tourists at $10/hour in 100 degree heat.

    Hell, they probably tell whoppers just to see how many people will believe them, and so they have something to joke about with the other guides.

  39. If the tour guide spewing information as historical fact, then she is representing herself as being a historian. If what she’s saying can be readily shown to be bullshit that no first year history student could mistake as accurate, then I’d say it’s fraud.

    I have a book of odd-trivia facts, published within the past few years, which makes a bullshit claim that many still believe: if you’re at the bottom of a deep well on a sunny day, you can look up and see stars in the sky. By your standard, can I sue the publisher for fraud?

  40. Mayor Michael Nutter

    I mean… come on!

  41. Theory: BernieS of 2600 Magazine, GTA-SA (plus other RockStar games), and Off the Hook fame is a well practiced social engineering expert, longtime resident of Philly. He could have put all of these false “facts” out there in a manner believable by tour guides. The result, of course, is an overreaction by government as many madcap hyjinks ensue!

  42. When I think of all the fabrications and omiisions that were part of the public school U.S. history curriculum

    Yep, and it wasn’t just in history. I remember my junior-high science teacher telling us that fish are able to get oxygen from the water because water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

  43. Brian Courts,

    Don’t forget that one of “leaving the atsmophere to escape the gravitational field of the earth”!

  44. I have a book of odd-trivia facts, published within the past few years, which makes a bullshit claim that many still believe: if you’re at the bottom of a deep well on a sunny day, you can look up and see stars in the sky. By your standard, can I sue the publisher for fraud?

    You say it’s a book of “odd-trivia facts”. So it’s claiming to be “factual” yet not authoritative. I could go either way on this, but even if it is fraud, what’s the liability? What are your damages? The price of the book? Or the price of the book times the ratio of BS to good information?

    Which is the point I was trying to make about the tour guide. As much as I feel cheated, even if I went as far as to call it fraud (which I’m not very emphatic about), where does that get me? My money back from the tour? Not worth pursuing.

    I don’t know what to do about BS tour guides. I just know they really piss me off. I don’t see a legal remedy and I don’t see the market as any help.

  45. The width-based peoperty tax is real, but I could only find it in New Orleans. The tax is much younger than Philadelphia, which is a pretty old city by American standards.

    Oddly, houses are still built as if they were taxed this way even though they aren’t. Fernandina Beach, FL has some.

  46. Don’t forget that one of “leaving the atsmophere to escape the gravitational field of the earth”!

    Ah yes, the infamous “there’s no gravity in outer space” explanation. Always loved that one too.

  47. The people who own the property, i.e. the citizens.

    The Constitution does not say anything about an exception to the first amendment for speech where you make money.

    If it did, the state could ban the sale of books by any authors it found acceptable, and then say, “Your speech isn’t banned if you want to give your books away for free.” Sorry.

    What is the problem here? No on is restricting their right to speak, only saying they need a permit.

    No, they’re saying that you need a permit and you can only get a permit if you state that you accept government definitions of historical orthodoxy.

    In addition, it may be a complete non sequitur to talk about this law as a way to protect historical accuracy anyway. The proposed law does not, in fact, make it illegal to offer historically inaccurate tour information. It makes it equally illegal for me to offer both inaccurate AND accurate tour information in Philadelphia. If I don’t take a test and get a license. Similarly, if I take a test and get a license, it would not be illegal for me to offer completely nonsensical information on my tours.

  48. Well Put Fluffy. But what about my desire to have someone knowledgeable show me around and give me the straight skinny. Do I just have to suck on it because there aren’t enough people who give a rat’s ass for the market to respond? That really blows. I could be getting so much more out of seeing stuff, if only I knew how to seduce History and Anthropology majors.

  49. I remember my junior-high science teacher telling us that fish are able to get oxygen from the water because water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

    Electric eels maybe…

  50. Here’s the thing: if you wish to turn a profit through your use of public land, than the public has every right to regulate your use of that land. Vendors can’t sell souvenirs on public land without permits, why should tour guides be any different?

    By that logic there would be no problem with laws forcing tour guides to provide false information. Since the public is providing the land, they get to decide what tour guides say, no?

  51. I remember my junior-high science teacher telling us that fish are able to get oxygen from the water because water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

    Stupid, so they think fish perform electrolysis?

    I remember my 8 grade science teacher saying that a radioactive element will decay forever because you can always cut the number of atoms in half.

    Also remember a 4 grade teacher saying that the word hot in hot chocolate is an adjective, it is not, because it is not a piece of chocolate that is hot, “hot chocolate” is like a single word, a noun.

  52. Tym,

    You’ve never heard of a cup of chocolate? Chocolate was originally consumed exclusively in its liquid form–it wasn’t until Europeans discovered it that it was formed into bars.

  53. The Armenian genocide never happened. If you clain it did, you can be prosecuted in Turkey. Methinks this is a VERY bad idea.

  54. Guy Montag | July 7, 2008, 1:04pm | #
    Sorry to hype on my office building so much in one thread, but I hear that the gun schools still pass around the myth that the Pentagon was built with five sides to represent the five branches of the military!

    1. There have never been 5 branches of the US military.

    2. It is shaped this way because it is the shape that fit the proposed location, location was changed bu shape kept and FDR liked the unique shape for a building.

    The Pentagon was built in that shape to confine the devil imprisoned in its center. That’s why we’re referred to as The Great Satan.

  55. Generally speaking, whenever govt. is in the business of determining what is Truth ™ and what isn’t – we’re in trouble. It’s the fundamental problem with the fairness doctrine – and man are there cries for a new fairness doctrine on the left.

    There are narrow areas where govt. should step up and carefully regulate Truth ™. Doctors who are giving medical advice, Lawyers, food labels.

    But TOUR GUIDES? Cmon.

  56. “I don’t know what to do about BS tour guides. I just know they really piss me off. I don’t see a legal remedy and I don’t see the market as any help.”

    The “remedy” is to stand next to the tour guide (but no so close as to be harassing them) and CORRECT their misstatements.

    This could actually be very funny and entertaining to do.

    Remember, the cure for bad speech is good speech – not lots of laws.

  57. “Because we have a Constitutional amendment that says that what you say on the public commons cannot be restricted by law?”

    But you don’t have any right to make money doing it. So long as this law doesn’t apply to people giving tours for free or on private land, there’s no issue.< /i>

    So I guess that if publishers sell their magazines and newspapers, rather than just giving them away for free, there’s no constitutional objection to requiring them to be licensed by the government? Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea: I keep reading all kinds of incorrect stuff in the MSM, and I think that government licensing is just the thing to keep them accurate.

    Then we can move to the intertubes, or at least those sites that accept advertising. (Hit and Run, you’re on notice!)

  58. I don’t know what to do about BS tour guides. I just know they really piss me off.

    I never went in for tours until the trip I’m on right now. We’re in Rome celebrating my little one’s 17th birthday and we gladly forked over a few extra euros to skip the line and do a tour of the Colosseum. Saved a few hours of waiting time, got some good info (not my first trip here) and left the group early to go have some drinks. We were going to do the same today at the Vatican but Little Bit took a second look at the 3 hour line and said that the church was making enough cash and she’d be happy with St. Peters on its own. (in the end a very good thing as the train and bus workers went on strike- it was hard enough to find a cab while most people were still waiting to get in.)

  59. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard

    You tell the Marines they’re part of the Navy.

  60. Who screwed up the HTML tags?

  61. I guess I have to stop telling people Philadelphia was annexed from the Kievan Rus in 1583 after the local daimyo was drawn and quartered at Tyburn Cross…

  62. Who screwed up the HTML tags?

    seamus seems to have clogged the html toilet with his “< /i>” up there

    But there, nothing a little plunging couldn’t fix. 🙂

  63. Elaboration on the facts is a long-standing tradition in our Republic. In fact, after the Reasonista-engineered revolution I plan to give tours of the Reason offices.

    I’ll point out historical oddities like: “This is the desk upon which our Imperator [Gillespie] first enjoyed the licentious company of Septimus Welch. When later asked, his only remark was: ‘Postrel really was better.’ I’ve always felt that he regretted having her strangled during the Night of the Long Copier Ribbons.” And so forth.

    Of course, having achieved an absolute anarchic state through their labors, the remaining heterodox Reasonistas will likely have my tongue cut out for that. Oh well, vita longa, lingua brevis, as I always say, or rather mouth incomprehensibly.

  64. George,

    Now try looking up when the Pentagon was built and when the Air Force was created.

    Bonus points for finding out where the Coast Guard fits in the federal government.

  65. seamus seems to have clogged the html toilet with his “< /i>” up there

    Oops. Sorry about that.

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