NEW ORLEANS - Every day, tour guides give dozens of tourists an entertaining look at local history and legends.
“I'll tell you about the hauntings that are associated with each place,” licensed tour guide Wendy Bosma told a group of tourists in the French Quarter Tuesday night.
But some believe the city's requirements to be a tour guide are so strict, they violate First Amendment rights. City ordinance mandates all tour guides to pass a history test, plus get drug tested and have a criminal background check every two years.
“New Orleans tour guides, treated like convicts,” said licensed tour guide Mary LaCoste.
LaCoste is a retired school principal who has been giving tours in New Orleans for over a decade.
She said getting a tour guide license in New Orleans is a cumbersome process that forces tour guides to pay a fee every two years to urinate in a cup for a drug test, plus get fingerprinted at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport as part of a criminal background check.
“Some of our people don't have cars. Part of it is getting fingerprinted at the airport. The police station won't do?” LaCoste said.
LaCoste is one of four tour guides who have filed a federal lawsuit against the city with the Institute for Justice, based in Virginia. They want to do away with licensing requirements altogether.
And they are taking the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday morning, where a panel of three appellate judges will decide whether to overturn the Eastern District of Louisiana Court’s decision that licensing requirements for tour guides are legal.
“We feel it's an unreasonable interference with our ability to earn money and to speak,” said LaCoste.
“We believe that the district court properly ruled that the licensing requirements do not infringe on First Amendment rights,” said City Attorney Sharonda Williams in a statement.
Of the 100 most populous cities in America, only three require a license to give tours, including New Orleans, said Matt Miller, an attorney representing the tour guides through the Institute of Justice.
“It violates the First Amendment,” said Miller. “The government can't condition your ability to speak on ordinary topics like history.”
But some tour guides and tourists say licensing is important.
“With a licensed tour guide you're going to get the assurance that you're going to get what you pay for,” said Cathy Arenburg, a tourist from Niagara Falls.
“We have licensing for a reason, if you can't pass a background check or a drug test, you shouldn't be out here doing tours anyways,” said Bosma, who works for Haunted History Tours.
Bosma is filing an unrelated suit against city officials after she was allegedly attacked last year by an inspector with the New Orleans Taxi Cab Bureau, which oversees tour guides. The case was highly publicized.
Miller said he is prepared to take the case to U.S. Supreme Court if an appeals court does not rule in favor of the guides.
If tour guides are caught working without a license, they could face up to five months in prison and $300 in fines.