Philadelphia tour guides who cannot remember the past may repeat historical tall tales to visitors, but should they be condemned to $300 fines if they aren’t licensed by City Hall? That’s the question facing a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel at a hearing today into whether a 2008 city law prohibiting people from leading tours without passing a test and having a license to do so is unconstitutional.

Robert McNamara, lawyer for three tour guides who brought the suit, said it’s about more than “a direct assault on two fundamental American rights: to speak freely and earn an honest living.” When the city sought to dismiss the suit without considering the constitutionality in 2009 — because they hadn’t included a budgetary line to cover enforcement — it became about money.

Tour guides would “have to go about their business knowing that in six weeks, six months, a year, their livelihood’s going to become illegal,” said McNamara.

David Forde, chief-of-staff for bill-sponsor Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, said, “We’re trying to be a tourist-friendly city so we shouldn’t be saying, ‘This is where George Washington met Abraham Lincoln.’ We’re not stopping anyone from saying what they want. ... We’re just calling for a test so they have a basis of knowledge.”

City yet to approve

On behalf of tour guides Mike Tait, Josh Silver and Ann Boulais, McNamara suggested an optional history test that would enable guides to advertise themselves as city-approved. He said the city didn’t respond.