Civil Liberties

Talk of the Town

Free speech in Philly


As it turns out, Benjamin Franklin did not have 69 children out of wedlock. Nor did the thrice-widowed Betsy Ross kill her husbands. Philadelphia tour guides have been known to add some extra flavor to their bite-sized history lessons for visitors, producing an entertaining if distorted history of the former U.S. capital. The City of Brotherly Love is not amused, and it has a plan.

As of October, men and women who make a living talking about the Constitutional Convention and the Liberty Bell will be required to take a city-issued test and obtain a touring license. The test had not been released when this issue went to press, but three rebellious tour guides had already launched a lawsuit. They will be represented by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm.

"The city council made this decision eight blocks away from where the forefathers guaranteed my right to free speech," says Ann Boulais, a plaintiff who gives sports history, haunted history, and general history tours of Philadelphia. Mike Tait, a tour guide who is also a plaintiff, says the law discriminates against the very companies that give the most in-depth information. Some larger companies have been granted exemptions because they offer training programs for their employees, and Tait says these companies tend to give superficial, sanitized tours rather than the "hard-core history" he prefers. Tait tells tourists that Benjamin Franklin may have been involved in the slave trade, for instance, which is not the kind of information you're likely to hear while riding a duck.

The mayor's office maintains that the tour guide test is a benign consumer protection measure. Tour guides in New York and Washington, D.C., already face similar requirements. "Tourism is a major art
of our local economy," mayoral spokesman Douglas Oliver told the Associated Press. "It is reasonable to ensure that tourists are getting accurate information."

Attorney Bob McNamara, who will argue the case for the Institute for Justice, says the city should not get to decide which version of Philly history is accurate. "That's sort of the heart of the absurdity," he says, "the conceit that there is one official history and that the government is supposed to be deciding" which version it is. Among the historical disputes McNamara's clients have with the city, one looms largest. "They disagree over the First Amendment," he says. The plaintiffs "think it means something."