IJ Has Some Advice for Kentucky

October 1, 2013

There is no shortage of parenting advice out there. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but could some of it also be illegal? That is the remarkable position taken by the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology, which has declared that only state-licensed psychologists may dispense parenting advice in the Bluegrass State.

Caught up in the board’s outrageous government overreach is 65-year-old North Carolina family psychologist John Rosemond. John is the author of more than a dozen books on parenting, five of them best-sellers. And for 37 years, he has also authored a syndicated newspaper column in which he gives advice to parents who are struggling with the challenges of raising children.

Like the well-known “Dear Abby” column, John’s column is often written in a question-and-answer format, in which he responds directly to questions sent in by parents. And that is what has some people upset. This past February, after John wrote a column advising two parents to get tough with their underachieving 17-year-old son, a retired Kentucky psychologist wrote a letter of complaint to the board, asking it to crack down on John’s column because John had not conducted an individual assessment of the troubled teen.

Remarkably, the board agreed, and in May of this year it sent John a cease-and-desist letter ordering him to stop responding to reader questions in his column and to stop truthfully referring to himself as a “family psychologist” in the tagline of that column. If he did not comply, the letter threatened him with legal action, which could include up to six months in jail and $500 in fines per violation.

After 37 years of writing his column, John was not about to back down. He joined with the Institute for Justice, and on July 16 we filed a lawsuit in federal court in Kentucky to vindicate John’s First Amendment rights.

The board’s actions violate the First Amendment in two distinct ways. First, the advice that John gives in his column is fully protected by the First Amendment. The government has no power to grant any privileged class of people a monopoly on parenting advice. Everyone is entitled to express their opinion on how best to raise children (and as anyone with children can tell you, everyone does).

Second, John’s description of himself as a “psychologist” is also fully protected by the First Amendment. The reason is simple: John is a psychologist. He is licensed by the state of North Carolina as a psychological associate, and under North Carolina law he is permitted to describe himself as a psychologist. Kentucky can no more ban John Rosemond from calling himself a psychologist than it could ban the Dr. Phil show from television on the grounds that Phil McGraw isn’t licensed in Kentucky.

Unfortunately, as readers of Liberty & Law know, what is happening in Kentucky is not an isolated incident. IJ is currently litigating similar occupational-speech cases in Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas and Washington, D.C. It is no exaggeration to say that occupational-licensing boards are the new censors; they are aggressive, and they do not think the First Amendment applies to them.

IJ is working to change that, and we have already scored an early victory in the Kentucky case. In the face of overwhelming media criticism of the board’s actions, the board agreed to a preliminary injunction that allows John to continue publishing his column without fear of criminal punishment while his case moves forward. With that victory under our belt, we look forward to securing a final victory that will allow John to keep writing his column—and his readers to keep enjoying it—for many years to come.

Paul Sherman is an IJ senior attorney.

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