In 2017, Bob Smith, owner of the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, opened his mailbox to find a notice from the state of California threatening to shut him down. The notice said that Bob was violating state law by admitting students to his horseshoeing school who hadn’t first graduated from high school or passed an equivalent government-approved exam.

For students with limited education, trade schools like Bob’s are often the best opportunity to learn a skill and join a trade that empowers them to earn an honest living. By denying students’ right to a quality education in a profession of their choice, California’s prerequisite education law hurt the very students it was intended to help.

Standing in front of a room of students and teaching a vocational skill is no different than writing a how-to book, publishing a series of newspaper stories, or uploading an instructional video to YouTube. In other words, teaching is a form of Constitutionally-protected free speech. That’s why Bob partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a lawsuit against the state of California to vindicate their First Amendment rights to teach and learn.

In June 2020, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s rules against students enrolling in Bob’s school restricted their First Amendment rights. California’s enrollment restrictions, the court further noted, were content- and speaker-based laws.

Then, in September 2021, the California Assembly passed a bill that repealed the “ability-to-benefit” requirement. That change went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, securing a major victory for Bob, his students and anyone who speaks for a living in California.

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Dan King

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In 1991, Bob Smith started Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS) to educate a new generation of farriers—craftsmen who trim and shoe horses’ hooves. Since PCHS’s founding, Bob has taught thousands of students to shoe horses, including many who never finished high school.

In 2009 California passed the Private Postsecondary Education Act, which forced PCHS and other schools to require that prospective students possess a high school diploma—or pass an equivalent government-approved exam—before they can enroll in a private trade school. The state called it an “ability to benefit” prerequisite. This prerequisite was never enforced against PCHS until 2017, when California regulators threatened to shut down PCHS if Bob didn’t start turning away any student who did not meet the state’s prerequisite education requirements.

Trade schools like PCHS give students an alternative path to learn a skill, join a profession, and empower themselves to earn an honest living. But without some training, it is nearly impossible to get started in the trade—which is why Bob started PCHS in the first place.

The Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School: Where Farriers Find Their Calling

The trade of horseshoeing hasn’t appreciably changed since the Industrial Revolution. Most farriers are drawn to the job for its independence and flexibility—and the prospect of good pay. Farriers aren’t required to get a license 1 anywhere in the United States. A typical modern farrier works as a sole proprietor, for as many or as few hours as he or she wants to. A good farrier can charge upwards of $120 per horse. 2

Bob Smith has been professionally shoeing horses since 1974. He founded Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS) in Plymouth, California to pass his skills on to another generation of farriers. Students, who pay $5,500 for the eight-week course, divide their time between classroom sessions and hands-on work forging and applying horseshoes. 3

PCHS, which accepts no state or federal student loans, has over 2,000 graduates, including hundreds who are now working as professional farriers. For his efforts as an educator, in 2010, Bob was inducted into the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame. 4

California Keeps Students in the Stable

In February 2017, a California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education inspector contacted PCHS and told Bob that he had to require prospective students to possess a high school diploma or its equivalent as a prerequisite to admission. The fine for ignoring the inspector is as high as $5,000. 5

California’s Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009 imposed a tangled web of reporting and operating requirements on the schools it regulated. 6

For students without a high school diploma, the law required that they either get their GED or pass an “ability-to-benefit examination” offered by a private vendor and approved by the federal government. 7

The federal government has approved the Wonderlic Basic Skills Test and the ACCUPLACER test, among others offered in both English and Spanish. 8

The exams test students’ proficiency in grammar, reading comprehension, sentence structure, arithmetic, and geometry. There are no questions about horses or horseshoeing on the exams.

Sample questions from the ACCUPLACER test, which is administered by the College Board, include:

A) If 3/2 ÷ 1/4 = nthen nis between

  1. 1 and 3
  2. 3 and 5
  3. 5 and 7
  4. 7 and 9

B) 46.2 x 10-2=

  1. 0462
  2. .462
  3. 62
  4. 462

 Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence. The first choice is the same as the original.   

C) I was surprised by the noise peering through the window to see who was at the door.

  1. I was surprised by the noise peering
  2. I was surprised by the noise, peering
  3. The noise surprised me, peering
  4. Surprised by the noise, I peered

D) For a snake, shedding their skin up to eight times a year is part of the natural process.

  1. For a snake, shedding their skin
  2. A snake’s shedding its skin
  3. When a snake sheds its skin
  4. To shed its skin, for snakes

California borrowed the concept of the ability-to-benefit exam from federal law, but has taken it to an extreme. The federal government has long used ability-to-benefit examinations to screen applicants for federally funded student loans and other grants 9 —in other words, when taxpayers’ money is at stake, federal law seeks to ensure the student is able to understand and learn what is being taught.

When a student wants to pay for trade school with his or her own money, federal law treats it as none of the government’s business. Nothing in federal law prohibits vocational schools from enrolling students who pay tuition upfront. California, by contrast, restricted PCHS and other trade schools from teaching students, who never finished high school, even when the student pays with his or her money.

Off to the Races: PCHS Sues in Federal Court

Teaching a skill is no different than writing a how-to book, publishing a series of newspaper stories, or uploading an instructional video to YouTube. In other words, teaching is a form of Constitutionally-protected free speech. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held that any conduct which consists of “communicating a message” is protected by the First Amendment. 10

Teaching horseshoeing is precisely that. PCHS wants to communicate the right way to shoe a horse.

Prohibiting Bob from teaching students was a clear violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t tolerate this kind of paternalistic government censorship, which is why the Institute for Justice filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of PCHS and Bob in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to put a stop to it.

Countless Americans—from reporters to tour guides to lawyers—earn their living in occupations that consist primarily of communicating. IJ has sued to protect the free speech rights of diet coaches, makeup artistry teachers, engineers, and veternarians 11 and has won landmark victories on behalf of a family therapist offering simple parenting advice given in a newspaper column, 12  technology start-up providing mapping services, and tour guides.

Bob, through PCHS, earns a living by communicating: Teaching students how to shoe horses. Both teaching and learning are protected by the First Amendment, and that doesn’t change just because someone pays to learn or gets paid to teach. After all, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized long ago, “the degree of First Amendment protection is not diminished merely because . . . speech is sold rather than given away.” 13

California’s shortsighted law not only violated teachers’ First Amendment right to teach, but also their students’ right to learn. Making it illegal to teach a useful skill harms the very people the law was intended to help.

The Plaintiffs

The Plaintiffs are: the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, a California corporation; Bob Smith, the owner of PCHS.

The Defendant

The Defendants are: Kimberly Kirchmeyer, the California Director of Consumer Affairs; and Michael Marion, Chief of the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. Both Defendants are responsible for enforcing the challenged law and are sued in their official capacities only.

Litigation Team

The litigation team consists of IJ Attorney Keith Diggs and IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. Brad Benbrook (Benbrook Law Group, Sacramento) has teamed up with IJ to serve as local counsel.

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