Back in the Saddle

Texas Veterinarian Renews Fight to Give Pet Advice Online

IJ never gives up. When the law is bad, we change it. And whenever there is an opportunity to turn defeat into victory, we seize it. This fall, that determination took IJ back to Texas to vindicate the free speech rights of Dr. Ron Hines.

Ron is a veterinarian dedicated to helping animals. Because of a disability, he retired in 2002. But thankfully the internet enabled him to share his 40 years of experience with just a few clicks. So Ron launched a website and began giving advice to pet owners around the world.

It was a labor of love. The small fees Ron charged barely covered expenses, and he helped everyone, whether they could pay or not. Of the hundreds of pet owners he counseled, some could not afford a traditional veterinarian. Others—like AIDS-relief workers in rural Africa—had no local options. Still others, often with terminally sick pets, just needed a sympathetic ear. It was a win–win situation: Ron could devote his retirement to good works, and technology was giving a new option to pet owners in need.

In 2017, Texas finally allowed telemedicine for doctors. That means humans in Texas can get advice online from their doctors without an in-person exam, but the state’s veterinary laws remain stuck in the past.

But Texas did not see it that way. In Texas, it is illegal for a veterinarian to give advice to a pet owner without first examining the animal in person. The state fined Ron and ordered him to shut down, even though no one had ever complained about his advice. In short, Texas treated online advice from Ron as worse than no care at all.

But Ron’s advice—emails and calls with willing listeners—was pure speech protected by the First Amendment. So, back in 2013, IJ and Ron teamed up to defend his right to speak. Unfortunately, a federal appeals court ruled in 2015 that the First Amendment does not apply to a professional’s advice. According to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, professional speech should be regarded as “conduct,” more akin to plumbing than speech.

IJ did not take this lying down. As part of our ongoing effort to protect those who speak for a living, we launched a series of new cases across the country and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, all involving occupational speech. We explained that professionals do not lose their right to speak just because they have state occupational licenses. And, in a sweeping decision this June, the Supreme Court emphatically agreed with our arguments.

This seismic legal shift means the original ruling against Ron was wrong for the exact reasons we argued in 2015, and we now aim to fix that injustice. So in October we filed a second lawsuit defending Ron’s right to give advice.

Meanwhile, guidance from the Supreme Court is not all that has changed. In 2017, Texas finally allowed telemedicine for doctors. That means humans in Texas can get advice online from their doctors without an in-person exam, but the state’s veterinary laws remain stuck in the past. It makes no sense to have tougher telepractice rules for vets treating animals than for doctors treating people. If the Texas vet board still won’t recognize the free speech rights of telepractitioners, well, this is IJ’s chance to teach an old dog a new trick.

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