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.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Legalities of Licensing Historical Tour Guides

The National Constitution Center has highlighted a case under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court about whether cities can require tour guides to pass tests of historical knowledge before being licensed.

Federal courts have issued contradictory decisions on that point in cases from Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. Such a disagreement often spurs the high court to issue a decision, but not always.

This question also arose in Philadelphia, and back in 2008 I wrote a bit about it, starting here. I found the libertarian think tank arguing the case (the same as in the current appeals) and its tour-company client were making arguments that didn’t add up, but they were easier to follow than a history professor’s position.

In the end, I concluded that a democratic government could, for the public good, institute a process for certifying guides as meeting certain standards for historical accuracy. But the potential harm to the public from historical misinformation was too small (even though the annoyance factor is high) to justify fining or otherwise punishing guides who don’t meet those standards or seek that certification. Furthermore, the process of approving some versions of history or some guides carries the dangers of oppressive ideology and favoritism.

(The photo above shows Gary Gregory in 2006, courtesy of Anne through Flickr via a Creative Commons license. Gary now operates the Edes & Gill print shop in the North End.)


EJWitek said...

If a municipality can demand that historical tour guides meet "certain standards for historical accuracy", under that same reasoning, couldn't the FCC require that the writers and producers of the History Channel's "Sons of Liberty" meet those same standards? After all, the History Channel broadcasts on public airwaves under license.

J. L. Bell said...

As a cable-television channel, the History Channel is not subject to the same F.C.C. rules as broadcast networks. I think there's a possible argument that its use of satellite transmission means it could be subject to some regulations for the public good, but overall the F.C.C. has cut back so much on media companies as long as they don't knowingly broadcast profanity that we'll never see that idea tested.

In any event, my argument above is that municipalities could set up a system to certify some sources of historical information as accurate, but not prevent others from promulgating their own stories or views. So the parallel is that a government could have a system to endorse some television miniseries (e.g., John Adams) and not others (e.g., Sons of Liberty), but the latter could still be shown.

One question is whether history teachers will end up basically producing that result through what videos they choose to show in classrooms.

(I should note that I spotted a lot of historical inaccuracies in John Adams and wrote about them on this site. Any dramatization has to be analyzed as a representation of the past designed to appeal to the dramatic sensibilities of its first audience.)

G. Lovely said...

I'm loathe to impinge on anyone's free speech right to spout absolute nonsense, no matter how high it raises my blood pressure, and the notion of government sanctioned information is even more abhorrent.

How about a loose confederation of local historians, professionals and amateurs stepping up to quiz self identified guides (over beers in a pub is fine) and giving those who can demonstrate at least a minimum of knowledge their imprimatur that they can use to tout their services?

I hereby nominate J.L. Bell, or his assigns, to head up what I suggest he call the "Committee of Correspondents" (as in corresponding with facts not baloney).

EJWitek said...

My point was not so much as to whether the History Channel would be subject to some sort of standards (judging from I have seen, they have absolutely none), but that the reasoning that would allow municipalities to require standards for tour guides opens up whole areas for regulation that previously had been considered off-limits. I certainly would not support any "standards" for the History Channel, I think it would be totally inconsistent with the First Amendment, but I do think that the Supreme Court, if they accept this case, has to wrestle with the rather important constitutional questions it highlights. And I am not so sure that they will side with the municipalities.

Committee of Correspondence said...

"Any dramatization has to be analyzed as a representation of the past designed to appeal to the dramatic sensibilities of its first audience." Well said sir, indeed well said.
Upon the recent episode in which an historic reporting organization has foolishly presented a fabrication of our insurrection of 1763 to 1775, and some less-well informed citizens seem to believe as fact; there is a problem. Our heritage needs to be safeguarded from inaccurate interpretations / personal opinion, to the public as fact will only escalate a problem which is growing. Yet, there is that feeing should government, be it local or State, get involved it is a financial question as-well. YES, historical interpretations to the general public should be somehow monitored. YES, there would be a need to have some form of identification of a sanctioned historical living history interpreter that the general public could recognized as bonafide. The Freedom Trail Foundation has it well covered up to a point. Btw (Thank you to the F.T.F. for its good work and good people!)
Note: Wait until some 25 year old guy with an unshaven appearance wearing a leather vest with two pistols stuck in his belt starts running around Boston giving tours as Samuel Adams. Then you’ll see the problem.

Cactusneedle said...

I guess I don't understand why the courts or government need to get involved in a job description. No matter what job you take, it has its requirements. Of course you need to have the proper skills and knowledge to do a particular job. That's a no brainer. Would you be hired to be an accountant if you had no skills in tax laws and accounting procedures? Nope. So why the problem in the case of historical tour guides?

Jerry said...

License a tour guide? Does that mean only government-approved "history" is allowed?

As an attorney and one who grew up in the "Old South" (now live in Boston), I can imagine what the guide exam would have looked like in 1950s or 60s Charleston, S.C.

Daud Alzayer said...

I'm a liberal but I agree with the libertarians here. I hate to argue the slippery slope, but open dialogue is essential to doing good history.

However, while I'm against licencing, I am okay with the idea of certification. If you allowed tour guides to test for an optional certification they could use to attract customers you wouldn't be prohibiting un-certified tour guides from giving tours.

PS- We all know Gary Gregory from the picture would pass any test they could come up with :)