Saturday, September 18, 2010

The dark, dark world of illegal Segway tours of Washington, D.C

Illegal walking in Washington, D.C,
In Washington, D.C., it is illegal to talk about the monuments or the history of the city if a person pays you to take them around town. That is, unless you pay the government $200 and pass a 100 question multiple-choice exam.
The District requires that all tour guides get a tour operator’s license, which can be obtained by paying an application fee, a license fee and an exam fee, all of which total $200, and taking the exam. The penalty for failing to do so is up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $300.

That is a risk that Tonia Edwards and Bill Main take daily. The two operate Segs in the City, a tour company that conducts people around the city on Segways. Neither they nor their employees have the required license. And, they have no intention of getting one: On Thursday, Edwards and Main, with the help of Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed suit against the city.

For Main, Edwards, and IJ, it is an issue of free speech: “The Constitution does not allow the government to be in the business of deciding who is — and who is not — allowed to speak about various topics.” Standing at the U.S. Navy Memorial, across the street from the National Archives where the U.S. Constitution is housed, Robert McNamara, staff attorney at IJ, declared: “That is un-American, that is unconstitutional and we will put a stop to it.”

The regulation has actually been around for about 100 years, though it has for the most part gone unenforced. But in July, the District new regulations took effect that specified that tours conducted on “self-balancing personal transport vehicles,” a.k.a. Segways, are subject to the licensing regulation. There are only three Segway tour companies in the District, so the threat was pretty clear. Instead of waiting around for the District to begin enforcing the law, Main and Edwards decided to sue.

Not only does the regulation require a license, but it prohibits anyone without one from “[using] the words “sightseeing,” “tours,” “guide” or any combination of these words, to advertise the availability of sightseeing tour services.”

Institute for Justice points out that many people’s jobs are to talk, such as broadcast journalists or comedians, and there is no licensing fee for them to do so. Moreover, the regulation has unintended broad-reaching consequences: “If … a person hires a D.C. taxi for a sightseeing tour (at a cost of $25 per hour), and the driver talks about the prospects of the Washington Redskins, no law has been broken. But if, during that same ride, the driver says “Hey, that’s the Washington Monument,” the driver can be fined $300 or even thrown into jail for three months.”

Operating tours is a seasonal business, and a lot of Tonia and Bill’s employees are students on break from school, or people who just graduated and need something to pay the bills while they look for a full-time job. It’s not exactly a demographic that can afford to pay $200 for the luxury of having a summer job, so none of Segs in the City’s tour guides are licensed.

If you’ve ever been unemployed, it’s hard not to see Bill and Tonia as sympathetic figures. The two happily hire people who are looking for full-time jobs, putting them into the schedule for about 20 hours per week so that they can make money, but still have time to job hunt. If these people first had to pay $200 for a license to give tours, it’s likely they would have moved on to another job before they’d even managed to break even.


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