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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now, to a travel dispute in this century. In Philadelphia, tour guides may have to hit the books this fall. A new law requires some professional guides to pass a history test or face hefty fines. But a handful of those guides say the law violates their first amendment rights.

Reporter Joel Rose took his own tour to find out who's ready for the test and who's not.

JOEL ROSE: Stop by Independence Mall in Philadelphia and you'll find companies hawking tours of the city's historical attractions, but you might want to take the history part with a grain of salt. Former Philadelphia Daily News reporter and columnist Ron Avery has been fact checking Philly tour guides for years.

Mr. RON AVERY (Columnist, Philadelphia Daily News): Sometimes they're winging it. Often they're repeating myths and ridiculous facts that they've heard from the other guides. It goes on forever and never ends.

ROSE: So, what are we going to do? We're going to get on a trolley here?

Mr. AVERY: Yeah, I think we'll get on a trolley or one of the big buses. We might get a guide that's very knowledgeable but I would say at least a 50/50 chance that we get a guide that is full of mistakes.

Unidentified Man: Is 548 feet up to the top of William Penn's hat on the top of City Hall.

ROSE: To be fair, the guide on the first double-decker bus we tried turned out to know quite a lot about the city's history; so does the second. But the third guide is having a little more trouble with the facts.

NICOLE (Tour Guide): My name is Nicole. (Unintelligible). They used to walk across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge daily for exercise.

ROSE: What do you think of that?

Mr. AVERY: Well, that's egregious.

ROSE: It's true that Walt Whitman spent final years in Camden, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia. But Whitman never walked over the Ben Franklin Bridge, which opened in 1926, more than 30 years after the poet's death. Ron Avery says this kind of mistake happens a lot.

Mr. AVERY: She has some things almost right, some things wrong. You can tell that she's probably done almost no reading on her own.

ROSE: At the urging of Avery and others, Philadelphia passed a law requiring guides to take a written test before they can give tours professionally. But opponents of the laws say it's the city that's forgetting its history.

Mr. ROBERT MCNAMARA (Lawyer, Institute for Justice): It's simply outrageous that in the very cradle of the Constitution, the Philadelphia City Council seems to be throwing our most fundamental liberties out the window.

ROSE: Robert McNamara is the lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. He says Philadelphia's law violates the first amendment's guarantee of free speech.

Mr. MCNAMARA: It's hard to think of anything that is more un-American than a fine for speaking with the government's permission.

ROSE: Backers of the law stress that it's only a one-time test, not an ongoing effort to censor tour guides. Similar laws are on the books in Washington, D.C., Charleston, South Carolina and elsewhere. As spokesman Doug Oliver says Philadelphia plans to defend its law in court.

Mr. DOUG OLIVER (Spokesman, Philadelphia): Tourism being a major part of our local economy, we want to make sure that we're protecting that. And make sure that people who come and visit our city get accurate information about our city and leave having enjoyed their experience.

ROSE: But Ann Boulais says the city's law would do neither. Boulais is one three plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She works for a company that gives tours of Philadelphia.

Ms. ANN BOULAIS (Operations Manager, American Trolley Tours): It's not necessarily whether or not you know every fact down pact. Some of it is showing the city in a positive light, having the enthusiasm, and taking a test isn't going to guarantee that. It's not going to guarantee a good and entertaining tour.

ROSE: Boulais says she'd rather see a voluntary certification process for tour guides without interference from City Hall. Until something changes, tourists here would be well advised to remember one very old expression: caveat emptor.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Up next, happy 100th birthday to the FBI from a century's worth of Hollywood G-Men and women.

It's NPR News.

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