Veteran New Orleans tour guide Barbara Robichaux can't fathom why the city requires her to pass a drug test and a criminal background check before she can shepherd tourists through the historic French Quarter or show them centuries-old cemeteries.
"At this point in my life, I don't think I'm going to take up crack cocaine," the 62-year-old joked as she showed her support for several colleagues who sued the city Tuesday over the licensing requirements.
The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has challenged similar licensing requirements in Philadelphia and Washington, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four New Orleans tour guides who claim the rules violate their free speech rights.
Besides submitting a urine sample for a drug test and getting fingerprinted for an FBI background check, tour guides also must correctly answer at least 70 percent of the questions on a history exam. They only have to take the history test once, but their licenses must be renewed every two years. Each time they renew, they must pass a new drug test and background check.
"These requirements are outrageous," said Matt Miller, a lawyer for the institute. "The city would never impose such a requirement on an author, a journalist or somebody coming to speak at the convention center."
Anyone caught giving a paid tour in New Orleans without a license can be punished with fines of $300 per infraction and up to five months in jail.
Nobody has been fined or jailed for the offense, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has been enforcing the rules in other ways, according to Miller and the suit's plaintiffs. Candance Kagan, a plaintiff who started giving tours last year, said city permitting officials have broken up tours led by guides whose licenses had expired and issued warning to the guides.
"All of a sudden, they change the rules in the middle of the stream," said Kagan, 67, who gives French Quarter walking tours on behalf of the nonprofit Friends of the Cabildo, which promotes historic preservation. "There was no notification of any changes."
The plaintiffs are seeking a court order that would permanently bar the city from enforcing the rules.
Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the city is trying to "protect the common good."
"We believe that licensed tour guides, who are important ambassadors for New Orleans, provide a consistent standard of information being presented to the visitors and citizens of our great city," he wrote in an email.
Berni said other large cities have similar rules.
"For several months, we have been engaged with the tour guide industry in examining the permitting and licensing process as (it) fits into our overall effort to move to one-stop shop permitting. That process continues," he wrote.
New Orleans has been issuing licenses to tour guides since the mid-1980s, but the plaintiffs say Landrieu's predecessors didn't enforce the rules as aggressively.
"We would like to have a license, but not at this price," said Jocelyn Cole, who owns a business that gives walking tours.
Robert Cangelosi, president of the group's board, said the city maintains the rules are designed to protect tourists and promote public safety. Cangelosi, however, questions why tour guides must be licensed while people in other tourism-related jobs, like hotel workers, don't face similar requirements.
"There seems to be no budging on the situation," he said.
Miller said he doesn't know if the city has ever denied a license to a tour guide who failed a drug test or had a criminal record. Berni didn't immediately respond to a question about the city's screening history.
New Orleans also limits tours to 28 customers and requires them to be separated by 50 feet and end by 10 p.m. Miller said the lawsuit doesn't challenge those rules because they regulate how tours are conducted and don't dictate who can give them.