J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Protecting the Right to Spout Nonsense

At last here are my own thoughts on the law and lawsuit in Philadelphia about licensing tour guides. As I understand it, the city plans to charge potential tour guides $25 to take a certification exam on their knowledge of local history, and to fine them $300 if they lead tours in the city’s historic center without such certification.

I think the certification is a good idea, but I don’t like the fines. And if that approach allows tour-guide misinformation to flourish, I’m okay with that.

Even though I can’t resist pointing out the media games and possible double standards underlying the suit against the new law, I still think it has some basic philosophical merit. One outcome of America’s Revolutionary turmoil was a written guarantee of speech free of federal government interference. There are logical and legal limits to that freedom, but they involve harm to others. No one’s going to be seriously hurt by hearing the old saw that “Sleep tight” refers to rope beds (it doesn’t) or that Benjamin Franklin wrote all those little maxims in Poor Richard’s Almanac (he didn’t). In short, tour guides have a First Amendment right to spout nonsense.

Yes, I hate hearing any guide spout nonsense about the past, especially nonsense that doesn’t stand up to a minute’s scrutiny. I also hate restaurant menus that offer meat “with au jus,” having to figure out a control mechanism suitable for flying the space shuttle when I just want to take a shower, and the growing number of people who think that an apostrophe is necessary in forming plural nouns. But those irksome things don’t warrant government penalties. It’s not as if a one-hour tour is a family’s only possible source for historic information; I’m pretty sure Philadelphia still has bookstores.

I think the Philadelphia government or a non-profit organization could administer a program to certify tour guides as knowledgeable about city history, perhaps funded by application fees. Boston 1775 reader Guy Curtis sent a link to the Association of Professional Tourist Guides in London, known for their “Blue Badge” certification, which could be a good model.

Guides who pass a basic history test would be able to present themselves to tourists and school groups as reliable “certified historical guides” or some such. Other tour guides who haven’t passed the test could seek a different competitive advantage in being cheaper, more comedic, ideologically pure—whatever they think their audiences want. As long as there’s no fraud involved, there’s no foul to be called. If the real problem is noise pollution, then the solution should focus on noise, not knowledge.

The situation in Philadelphia might be more complex if it involves limited public resources, such as space in the tourist areas. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky wrote this March that:

outside the Independence Visitor Center,...sidewalks used to be crammed with a hodge-podge of operators passing out brochures, hawking tickets and undercutting competitors so aggressively that visitors complained.
If there’s room for only a certain number of historic guides and more applicants than slots, then I think the city should be able to favor certified guides over uncertified. But that’s still a long way from fining people for telling tourists about history without government authorization.

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