Only in Washington DC could a person who describes the First Amendment’s protection of free speech wind up in jail for 90 days. The Institute of Justice has decided to challenge DC’s regulation of the tour-guide industry, where the capital of the free world exercises a prior-restraint licensing regime on those who would describe the city to tourists, who come to admire this bastion of liberty:

May city officials in Washington, D.C., throw local tour guides in jail for up to 90 days for engaging in unauthorized talking?

This is the question the Institute for Justice (IJ) seeks to answer in a federal lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  Two area tour guides—Tonia Edwards and Bill Main—are joining forces with IJ to strike down the city’s tour guide licensing scheme as a violation of their fundamental constitutional rights. …

Together, Tonia Edwards and Bill Main run Segs in the City, which provides fun and informative Segway “safaris” in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  There is, however, a key difference between the three cities:  In D.C., doing this makes them criminals.  Currently, for telling their customers that the National Archives houses the Bill of Rights, Tonia and Bill could be fined and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The District’s licensing scheme makes it illegal for anyone to “guide or escort” anyone else for hire without first passing a test and obtaining a special license. The prohibition on unauthorized talking covers all of the public spaces in D.C.—including roads and sidewalks.

Some may compare this case to Philadelphia’s effort to license bloggers, but the two are not the same.  In Philadelphia, the city wanted bloggers who earn revenue from their blogs to buy a business license, the same as all other commercial ventures in their jurisdiction.  Their wisdom in pursuing that notion is certainly debatable, but Philly wasn’t attempting to impose a separate license for the purposes of commercial speech.  Presumably, Segs in the City already has its business license.

In another bit of irony, though, IJ is also challenging a similar tour-guide licensing scheme … in Philadelphia.  What is it about two of the most important seats of liberty that those in power must restrict those who talk about them?